Written & directed by Simon Downing
Produced in association with The Phoenix Theatre and Arts Centre, Bordon
16 Feb 2018 Phoenix Theatre, Bordon, Hants
17 Feb 2018 Phoenix Theatre, Bordon, Hants
2 Mar 2018 Fisher Theatre, Bungay, Suffolk
3 Mar 2018 Vera Fletcher Hall, Thames Ditton, Surrey
20 Sept 2018 Stables Theatre, Great Comp, Kent
22 Sept 2018 Brighton Open Air Theatre, Brighton
28 Sept 2018 Southwold Arts Centre, Suffolk
11 Oct 2018 Manor Pavilion Theatre, Sidmouth, Devon
12 Oct 2018 Cygnet Theatre, Exeter, Devon
13 Oct 2018 Wingfield Barns, Nr Diss, Suffolk
18 Oct 2018 Leatherhead Theatre, Leatherhead, Surrey
26 Jan 2019 Players Theatre, Thame, Oxon
9 Feb 2019 Sarah Thorne Theatre, Broadstairs, Kent
14 Feb 2019 Middlesbrough Theatre, North Yorkshire
15 Feb 2019 Cranleigh Arts Centre, Cranleigh, Surrey
10 Oct 2019 Hangar Farm Arts Centre, Totton, Hants
11 Oct 2019 South Hill Park Arts Centre, Bracknell, Berks
12 Oct 2019 Town Hall Arts Centre, Trowbridge, Wilts
17 Oct 2019 The Corn Hall, Diss, Norfolk
18 Oct 2019 Seagull Theatre, Lowestoft, Suffolk
19 Oct 2019 Cryer Arts Centre, Carshalton, Surrey
25 Oct 2019 The Majestic Theatre, Darlington, N Yorks
26 Oct 2019 Skipton Little Theatre, Skipton, Yorks
8 Nov 2019 Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, Surrey
22 Nov 2019 Tara Theatre, London
23 Nov 2019 Brookside Theatre, Romford, Essex
7 Mar 2020 The Place Theatre, Bedford
26 Mar 2020 Howden Shire Hall, Yorks
31 Mar 2020 Torch Theatre, Milford Haven, Wales
Fagin? delves deep into the untold story of a well-known criminal from Dickens' beloved novel Oliver Twist. Produced by Kick in The Head, the play offers an insight into Fagin’s own reflection on his life coupled with his true disposition discovered through his conversation with two ghosts.
All three actors in the roles of Fagin (Keith Hill), Bill (Giles Shenton) and Nancy (Georgia Butt) deliver impeccable performances, thereby managing to develop and maintain a natural atmosphere of a mid-19th Century cockney prison throughout the play. In the centre of it all, the audience is captivated primarily by Fagin’s diverse, manipulative and complex character. His monologues, especially towards the end of each act, paint a picture of greed, selfishness, duplicity and treachery – all features of a skilful dodger, but also cowardice, underlying rage against authority, and perhaps a touch of guilt.
The visits Bill’s ghost pays to Fagin, cunningly triggers some of the answers the audience seek such as why Fagin is sentenced to be hanged. The conversation between the two characters can get edgy at times, yet easily balanced by remembering the common history they share. The mischief that Fagin recalls in a nostalgic realisation of their utmost value in the face of death, only briefly help to distract Bill’s aim to remind of the horror his victim has undergone and the one to come at Fagin’s expense. In addition, the appearance of the murdered Nancy’s ghost increases the pressure put on Fagin to evoke regret and repentance for his devilish occupancy in lying, pick-pocketing, escaping prison, selling girls to men and more. The difficulty in achieving this, however, only leaves the audience pondering on what more Fagin does not confess. Ironically, as a result of his helplessness in knowing what awaits, perhaps one of the greatest ironies brought by the main character is the readiness to take on any blame thrown at him, as long as he is not left alone with his thoughts.
The romantic relationship between Bill and Nancy we understand existed and will last forever is the only place where the audience could catch a laugh mainly triggered by the bold and saucy characterisation of Nancy. Georgia Butt’s performance doesn’t fail to astonish, especially at the subtle transitions between the through line and the character’s emotional side. Similarly, the latter is well handled by Bill’s sudden change of tone and mood when seeing Nancy. Namely because of the seriousness of the duologues between Fagin and Nancy and Bill and Nancy, a slightly slower pace reflecting the actual thought process within the character’s mind could be beneficial at places without compromising the fiery dynamic of the conversations.
The simple set and costume’s relevance makes it easier for the audience to dive in the time period. The lack of any substantial sound effects other than hour announcement to remind Fagin of the passing time is perfectly acceptable for a set in a prison cell.
Lastly, well-crafted writing essential when dealing with a classic piece like this noticeably contributed to the flow of the play.
Bordon’s Phoenix Theatre has previewed much of Simon Downing’s work as a director. He has now written Fagin?, a self-directed three-hander and a Kick in the Head production. I feel privileged to have been there on its first night last Friday. It is a powerful piece of work and, with the inevitable tweaking and tuning that any new vehicle needs before going out on the road, it deserves to become an eventual classic. The set is simple, the themes (of love, greed, deception, betrayal, regret and retribution) universal, the subtle interplay between the three characters intense and the background (Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist) so familiar that this small masterpiece could well be a theatrical staple.
Downing starts from the premise that Dickens provided no back story for Fagin, but the character is widely believed to have been based on Ikey Solomon, a notorious criminal and fence in the early 19th century. Dickens was a court reporter before turning to fiction, and it is more than possible that he covered Solomon’s sensational Old Bailey trial in June 1830. Much of Solomon’s well-documented life story has therefore been appropriated for the play.
The lights come up on the sparse condemned cell in Newgate Prison, on the night before Fagin’s (Gately Freeman, in an intensely demanding role which sees him on stage throughout) public hanging as an accessory to Bill Sikes’ murder of Nancy. He bemoans the injustice of the sentence of death being passed on a mere ‘accessory’, wilfully ignoring the fact that he himself had contrived the murder through the falsehood that Nancy had betrayed Bill, whereas she had actually shielded him from the law. He cheerfully describes his life of theft in the underworld slang of the times (trotter cases = boots).
As Fagin reminisces on the unfairness of life and rages at what he sees as the perversion of justice, a burly top-hatted figure emerges stage left, initially greeted as his old friend, Bill Sikes, but then revealed to be merely Bill’s ghost (Giles Shenton, who also provided the original idea for the play, is a commanding, minatory presence). Bill taunts Fagin with the moral vacuum of his life of crime, castigates him for precipitating his own bludgeoning of Nancy and goads him with the detailed ignominy of his fate on the morrow. Whereas Bill’s own death had been mercifully instantaneous, Fagin will take up to 30 minutes for his life to be extinguished, humiliated before a baying mob of thousands for whom hangings were a carnival entertainment.
Shenton’s physical portrayal of Bill Sikes adheres closely to Dickens’ own description: “a stoutly-built fellow of about five-and-thirty, in a black velveteen coat, very soiled drab breeches, lace-up half boots, and grey cotton stockings which enclosed a bulky pair of legs, with large swelling calves—the kind of legs, which in such costume, always look in an unfinished and incomplete state without a set of fetters to garnish them.”
Downing’s skilful direction of Freeman as Fagin is, by contrast, far from the parody Jew with which we have become familiar (such as Alec Guinness’ version in David Lean’s film of Oliver Twist). His Fagin is merely a man, albeit a thoroughly bad man, with ambitions, a family and a business which he presents as wholly normal for the time. Indeed, Dickens himself came to regret the casual antisemitism of Fagin’s character. A contemporary report of one of his last public readings in 1869 reported that "There is no nasal intonation; a bent back but no shoulder-shrug: the conventional attributes are omitted”.
Over the course of the play, Fagin’s character becomes progressively darker and Freeman invests him with a curious dignity despite his self-delusion. Caught and condemned to transportation to Tasmania, he had escaped with the connivance of his father-in-law and made his way to Denmark before returning to London. In the meantime, the authorities had focussed their retributive attention on his wife, Ann, who was sentenced (for receiving stolen goods) to transportation with her children.
During the play, an off-stage voice remorselessly records the passing of Fagin’s limited time on Earth by tolling the hours: “ten o’clock and all’s well”. The first act closes with Bill’s departure, and Fagin is alone once more.
In the second act, Nancy’s own phantom appears, to berate Fagin in her turn for his abuse of trust, loyalty and friendship, his miserliness and solipsism. In this, her professional debut, Georgia Butt was confident playing against two of Simon Downing’s ‘regulars’, and she had a strongly-written part to work with. Again, as with Fagin, her portrayal was at variance with the stereotypical Nancy as a bedraggled, down-trodden ‘tart with a heart’, playing her more as a proud and defiant representative of womankind oppressed and betrayed by villains, shaming Fagin for his flawed and feckless character.
Bill appears once more, and in a powerful scene the two spirits are ultimately reconciled while also laying bare Fagin’s unrepentant amorality. They leave and Bill returns alone, as the sexton of St. Sepulchre’s, to intone the condemned prayer (“All you that in the condemned hole do lie,/Prepare you, for tomorrow you shall die…”. Twelve chimes from a hand-bell at the stroke of midnight was the ‘death knell’).
The action closes with Fagin’s brief soliloquy, clutching a candle, breaking the fourth wall by vilifying the audience as if we were in loco the ghoulish Newgate crowd; he certainly does “not go gentle into that good night”. The candle is then snuffed, and in the sudden dark we hear the body’s drop, the swinging rope and the crowd’s derisive roar.
How thrilling that the Phoenix can be the launch-pad for such an exciting new play. Its assured production will shortly begin a national tour, which starts in Bungay in March before returning closer to ‘home’ at Leatherhead Theatre in October. I look forward to seeing how it develops. You would be a fool to yourself to miss it.