FOUR STARS That Theatre Alibi’s admirable adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop will not stick too closely to the contours of the original is early apparent in the presentation of the chief villain Daniel Quilp. Far from the grotesque hunchback of Charles Dickens’ novel, he is portrayed by Derek Frood as a confidently strutting, snappily-suited, camel-coated, cigar-puffing crook more in the mode of a Kray than a Quasimodo.

That still makes him a very nasty piece of work, though. We see that in an unpleasant incident, inspired by the dog-baiting episode in the book, in which scrap-dealer Quilp affects to befriend a mutt, and then places it in the boot of a car that he sends off to his crushing machine.

He hopes to obliterate people just as mercilessly, with the same unmotivated malice that appears to actuate Shakespeare’s Iago. His principal victims are 15-year-old Nell (Sarah Kameela Impey) and her loving but fatally flawed grandfather (Christian Flint).

His Curiosity Shop, in the clever updating of the story by Daniel Jamieson, deals not in “odds and ends” but in pop records. The engaging character of Kit Nubbles (excellently played by Abingdon’s Richard Holt) is the good-hearted assistant in the shop. From its presumed stock of LPs comes an eclectic selection of tracks (including Kiss, Presley, Bach, Bowie and Lady Gaga) fashioned by music consultant and composer Thomas Johnson into a soundtrack for the action.

This sees Granpa and Nell driven on to the streets, and all the dangers to be found there, after the old man runs up huge debts to Quilp to finance his addiction to gambling. At this point comes the sharpest deviation from Dickens when pursuit of the pair, and their imagined stash of cash, is led not by Nell’s feckless brother (he’s eliminated here altogether) but by Quilp. This is an unlikely scenario, since the villain knows funds are non-existent.

But audiences might be prepared to forgive this fault when there is so much else to hold the attention.

Among compelling features of the production, which is very capably directed by Nikki Sved, is a second presentation of unashamed villainy by Cerianne Roberts in the role of Quilp’s bent lawyer Sally Brass. The vicious beating she gives to her daughter (Ms Impey again) is not easy to watch, even when seen in silhouette behind a screen on designer Trina Bramman’s serviceable set, whereon at other times are projected scene-setting images, both moving and static.

Some joy in this young girl’s life comes in the friendship of the wise-cracking rapper Dick E. Swiveller (Malcolm Hamilton). Their musical double act is as adroit a move in this updating as the transformation of Mrs Jarley’s wax museum into a display of dissected corpses exhibited in the style of Gunther von Hagens by Klara von Jarlsberg (Jordan Whyte).

In the end, the play reaches an unsuccessful conclusion, with the important character of Mr Exe (Christian Flint) totally written out at the climax. But with some tinkering — and perhaps rather fewer of the confusing cast ‘doublings’— Curiosity Shop could prove a big hit for Alibi and co-producers Oxford Playhouse and Exeter Northcott Theatre.

Oxford Playhouse, until Saturday.

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