Dodger gives Dickens’ cheeky urchin a rollicking origin story

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Dodger ★★★

liver Twist was Charles Dickens’ Ally McBeal – a popular work in which the title character was by far the least interesting. Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! maintained this tradition, notably giving the best song and many of the best lines to Oliver’s cocky streetwise bestie, the Artful Dodger, who thoroughly outshone the wispy milquetoast with his name on the marquee. After all these years, it’s good to see that the bestie has finally made his way to title status in Dodger, a show that isn’t a musical but bounces and rollicks along in a colourful fantasy of Dickensian London that would be quite at home on Broadway.

Billy Jenkins as 12-year-old Jack Dawkins in Dodger.

To deal with the elephant in the room: Dodger should not be confused with The Artful Dodger, Disney+’s more-ballyhooed and much more po-faced production. While the latter follows Dodger’s adult adventures in Australia, Dodger is the cheeky urchin’s origin story. At the outset of this story, we find 12-year-old Jack Dawkins (Billy Jenkins) – yet to acquire his famous moniker – suffering at the hands of a brutal mill owner in the north of England.

Escaping from his cruel employer, Jack joins forces with a local farm girl, Charley (Aabay-Noor Ali), who is also keen to slip the bonds of child labour, and the pair set off for London, where Jack hopes to return to the orphanage where he was treated kindly before being forced into servitude at the mill. Once in the big city, as anyone familiar with Dickens will guess, Jack and Charley fall in with the charmingly devious Fagin, his merry band of juvenile pickpockets and, more worryingly, the somewhat psychotic Bill Sikes. Once in the troupe, Jack soon becomes the Dodger, making his mark as London’s foremost criminal trickster – while never being far from danger.

Creator Rhys Thomas, who pulls double duty as one of a pair of comically dim-witted London bobbies, has bucked the trend of modern Dickens adaptations. Where producers have of late been keen to bring the great storyteller’s tales to screen in as gritty, realistic and generally unpleasant a fashion as possible, Dodger is a show committed entirely to a rousing good time.

Not that there is no darkness here – the treatment of the child heroes by callous adults is naturally nasty – but it is all done in family-friendly style. In fact, Dodger shares DNA not just with period fantasies like Merlin and the BBC Robin Hood, but with the all-time kids-show-for-grown-ups, Doctor Who. It’s quite appropriate then, that in this show Fagin is played by the Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, who seems to be having a lot more fun in his later career than he was when he was a bigger star.

As Fagin, Eccleston is a cheerful moral vacuum who only occasionally shows glimpses of vulnerability, exploiting his young charges for profit but perhaps extending them just a tad more genuine care and kindness than his literary source. Eccleston plays it big and broad, as do all of the adult cast: Thomas and Javone Prince, as the bumbling coppers, are comedic gold, and there are marvellously uproarious turns throughout the series by the likes of Samantha Spiro as Madame Tussaud, Robert Lindsay as the prime minister, Tanya Reynolds as Queen Victoria, and Colin McFarlane as the sublimely mean yet ridiculous mill owner from whom the Dodger escapes.

But of course, the centre of the story is the artful one himself, and although he begins as a hapless orphan fleeing oppression, his journey to becoming the supremely self-confident prince of the streets is a riotously enjoyable one, eschewing the grimy realities of 19th-century social stratification in favour of bright and breezy adventure. Jenkins, as the Dodger, is a charismatic presence, inhabiting Jack with a growing sense of streetwise bravado, and avoiding the trap of letting any modernisms infect his performance. His young co-stars, too, acquit themselves well – particularly Ellie-May Sheridan as Fagin’s lieutenant and pint-sized hard nut Polly Crackitt, a veteran thief underneath a memorably awful haircut.

Not every bit of Dodger holds up to scrutiny: greater priority tends to be given to opportunities for chase scenes and general silliness than rigorous plotting; and it’ll never go down as one of history’s deeper or more thought-provoking shows. But it’s fun, funny and endearing, and that’s enough.

Dodger is on 7Plus

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