James Swanton gives the background to his latest one-man play, a maelstrom of grotesquerie, terror and bloodshed

Alone on stage, relating the gripping story of the murder at the heart of Oliver Twist, I will be transporting the audience to the banks of the River Thames, through criminal hideouts and over the rooftops of London.

Bringing with me some of Charles Dickens’ most unforgettable characters, from the stricken Nancy to the devilish Fagin and the terrifyingly unstoppable Bill Sikes, I’ll also be wrapping up a national tour — the Old Fire Station being the final opportunity to see Sikes & Nancy before it transfers to the West End in December.

Much of my preparation for the play has centred on its astonishing history. Charles Dickens first performed it as one of his celebrated Public Readings — a programme that took Dickens to Oxford Town Hall in October 1859.

But unlike his lighter, jollier performances, Sikes & Nancy took a terrible toll on Dickens’ health. His heart rate rocketed from 72 to 124. When he came to bludgeon Nancy, Dickens banged his desk with such force that he dented his gold cuff-links. Little wonder he would lie prostrate on a sofa afterwards, unable even to speak.

The reasons for Dickens’ devotion to Sikes & Nancy remain chillingly unclear. Was it some eruption of long-suppressed violence towards women? His guilt at that violence? Was it his desire to leave his mark on the art of acting? Or was it simply that Dickens realised he’d created a uniquely powerful piece of theatre? It was a theatre he killed himself to create — the strain of Sikes & Nancy was a decisive factor in Dickens’ death at the age of only 58.

My performance is an effort to resurrect the passionate ferocity of Dickens’ performances, albeit with less danger to my health. To recapture the spirit of melodramatic acting, I’ve studied Henry Irving in The Bells and Donald Wolfit in King Lear. I’m also no stranger to highly grotesque and physical characterisations. In recent years, I’ve played such Dickensian monstrosities as Marley’s Ghost and Wackford Squeers, as well as the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the subject of my previous one-man play.

Armed with just a few chairs and Dickens’ terrifying text, I look forward to tempting Oxford into the shadows of Fagin’s den.

Sikes & Nancy is on at the Old Fire Station on November 15. Box office on 01865 305305 or visit www.oldfirestation.org.uk