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review

Promising newcomer Ngabo Nabea plays Ollie with intense conviction and welcome physicality.Racheal McCaig

It's all about Toronto at the city's theatres these days, even when it comes to doing the classics. Over at Soulpepper Theatre, you can see an updated, set-in-TO revival of Dario Fo's 1970 Italian police satire Accidental Death of an Anarchist, repurposed to reference the G20 protests and the Sammy Yatim shooting. At Factory Theatre, meanwhile, there's Twisted, a new play by Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman and Joseph Jomo Pierre that scoops up a handful of characters from Oliver Twist and plunks them smack dab amid the teeming throng of Yonge-Dundas Square.

In the case of Twisted, the transplant doesn't take. The problem isn't with the concept – it's easy to find contemporary, local equivalents of Charles Dickens's Victorian criminals and social outcasts – but with the execution. Playwrights Pierre and Corbeil-Coleman tell their bleak urban tale via an ambitious mash-up of monologue, rap and text message that seldom meshes successfully, while director Nigel Shawn Williams's awkward production (a joint venture between Factory and the b current company) only fitfully comes to life.

In this reimagining, Oliver, the poor workhouse orphan, becomes Ollie, an unwanted child who has been shunted through the foster-care system. Now a 17-year-old street kid – played with intense conviction by promising newcomer Ngabo Nabea – he's found a big-brother figure in Dodger, who provides drugs to prostitutes. Sent by Dodger to deliver some Oxycontin pills to a 23-year-old hooker named Nancy (Susanna Fournier), Ollie falls hard for her at first sight. But he still has the wherewithal to grab her cellphone and enter his number, initiating their text-based relationship.

That first meeting, occurring about a third of the way into the 80-minute play, is the only time Nancy and Ollie come face-to-face. Otherwise, they interact through their texts, projected on an upstage screen, or address the audience. Fournier's funny, sour-faced Nancy, dressed like a dirty angel in high-heeled "hooker boots" and a white bubble coat from Joe Fresh, delivers monologues about growing up neglected in small-town Verona, Ont. ("Fair Verona," she sneers, showing an unexpected familiarity with Shakespeare.) Her life of prostitution began when she was recruited online by Sykes, a brutal pimp who uses a chat room to prey on young girls.

Ollie, a budding spoken-word poet, expresses his feelings through eloquent rap soliloquies, performed by Nabea with some welcome physicality that this static show could use more of. This rapping Oliver Twist is the contribution of co-writer Pierre, who has been known to appropriate classic literary characters before. His play Shakespeare's Nigga, seen at Theatre Passe Muraille two years ago, recast Othello and Aaron from Titus Andronicus as black slaves to the white English playwright. This time out his approach is less provocative, but it has to be said his angry young Ollie is a lot more interesting than the pathetic little hero of the Dickens novel.

Corbeil-Coleman is responsible for creating Nancy, and her hard-bitten "bottom girl" also improves on Dickens's sentimentalized harlot – although, as we might have expected, beneath her bubble coat beats the requisite heart of gold. In a, um, twist on the original plot, this Nancy doesn't set out to save Ollie, but instead tries to rescue one of Sykes's underage recruits – albeit with the same tragic results. In the play's most touching scene, Fournier's cynical prostitute, gobsmacked at the sight of pure innocence, describes bonding with this sweetly naive girl over a bag of M&M's in the Eaton Centre food court.

But most of the time the show's clunky structure keeps us from getting emotionally involved. We're focused on its mechanics instead of on the characters' plight. The Simeon Taole-designed text messages – complete with emoticons and the occasional AutoCorrect gaffe – are amusing but distracting; they only really become effective as an urgent string of dispatches during the climax. Even a scene with drug-addicted Nancy that gives a desperate new meaning to the novel's famous catch phrase – "Please, sir, I want some more" – is more clever than poignant.

Equally clever is Denyse Karn's set, a scale model of downtown Toronto in which everything is turned on its side to suggest an aerial view of the city. It's coated in a speckled grey that suggests both T-Dot grime and Victorian London soot. Or maybe Karn is just making literal Factory's new slogan, "theatre with grit."

There's plenty of grit in Twisted, plus some sharp writing and vivid performances, but its components fail to add up to a compelling drama. Novice pickpockets, just like young Oliver, Corbeil-Coleman and Pierre have filched Dickens's characters and his burning sense of social injustice, but they forgot to steal his storytelling skills as well.