CONARTISTS Oliver Twisted

The Horse and Trap, Enfield St, Mt Eden, Auckland

29/04/2014 - 03/05/2014

BATS Theatre (Out-Of-Site) Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington

30/10/2014 - 30/10/2014

NZ International Comedy Festival 2014

NZ Improv Festival 2014

Production Details

An Improvised Dickens you’ll want some more…

Following the huge success of Austen Found and Enid Untold, ConArtists are back to deliver Great Improvisations as they invent a brand new Dickensian theatrical every night from 29 April to 3 May. Mrs Plodswallop or perhaps Mr Smigglesquelch will bring Victorian England alive, complete with urchins, prostitutes and gruel. You’ll be wanting some more as it’ll be the best of times … and the best of times, this 2014 NZ International Comedy Festival.

ConArtists have been entertaining Aucklanders since 1987 and show no sign of slowing down. The company members have performed improv all over the world; have represented their country in Theatresports™ and also extensively toured New Zealand. They boast some of the most experienced and hilarious improvisers in the country, so you should really see what all the fuss is about.

Cast members have been featured in Almighty Johnsons, Gloss, Lord of the Rings, In My Father’s Den, Good Morning, Shortland St, Outrageous Fortune, Xena, Hercules, Spartacus, 7 Days and Would I Lie to You. So they’re quite good.

“A marvellous time is had by all. Jane Austen would turn in her grave with delight!…Rollicking fun!” Austen Found, Rip It Up Adelaide February 2010

“Theatre Sports meets Enid Blyton, with a dash of rabid patriotism and a dollop of uranium in this jolly old lark from the ConArtists.” Theatreview 2011 – Enid Untold

“An engaging entertainment full of fun and frivolity.” Austen Found: The Undiscovered Musicals of Jane Austen, NZ Herald, October 2010

“…it is clear that the ConArtists are the professional, seasoned variety of improv artists. They don’t miss a beat.” Theatreview, Sex, Lies and Improvise July 2010

CAST INCLUDES: Geoff Dolan, Penny Ashton, Lori Dungey, Clare Kelso and Robert Mignault.

Watch the video here!  

As part of the 2014 NZ International Comedy Festival in cahoots with Old Mout Cider, grab some mates and join us for a great night of laughs from 24 April – 18 May. For the full Comedy Fest show line-up head to

Dates: Tue 29 April – Sat 3 May, 8pm
Venue: The Horse and Trap, 3 Enfield St, Mt Eden
Tickets: Adults $25, Conc. $20 Bookings: 0508 iTicket (484 2538) or

Part of the New Zealand Improv Festival 2014
28 October – 1 November at BATS (Out of Site)
3 show passes available! Contact the Box Office for more information – 

Follow the festival online…

Starring Penny Ashton, Lori Dungey, Clare Kelso, Peter Muller, Marc Sautelet, Lindsey Brown and Madeleine Lynch.

BATS (Out of Site)
Thu 30 Oct 8:00pm 
Ticket Prices 
Full $18.00 
Concession $14.00 
Group 6+ $14.00


Authentically grounded and monumentally silly

Review by Alex Wilson 31st Oct 2014

As pointed out by our effervescent host, Penny Ashton, Dickens is filled with larger-than-life characters and ConArtists do not disappoint, weaving a story filled to brim with Dickensian tropes of hidden identities, sudden turns of fortune and a hero undergoing a life of hardship, grief and toil.   

In this remarkable tale we follow the audience-named Estella Sparklewench (Madeline Lynch) who is on a quest set by her dying governess to fight against the patriarchy and make a fiercely independent woman of herself. To achieve this she finds herself in the employ of a Mr and Mrs Posh (Geoff Dolan and Penny Ashton) who set her the task of becoming an honourable woman before the week is out, unless she wants to fall out of their favour. In the meantime, Reggie (Marc Sautelet), a man so fancy he doesn’t require a last name, escapes Newgate prison and a manhunt begins.

The story is just dripping Dickens. The ensemble is completed by Peter Miller, Lori Dungey – whose lady of the night, a Ms. Crabbybits, us a potential show-stealer – and Robbie Ellis as muso, in his last show with the ConArtists (in a long list of lasts before his sad departure to the United States to seek his fortune).  

The cast have done their homework in researching the genre and the long form is grounded in their authentic characterisation. Sautelet particularly relishes his dual roles of a Christmas Carol-styled barrow boy and Abel Magwitch-like convict, his physicality and enthusiasm a sight to behold.

Being a parody, the story is of course as monumentally silly as it is self-aware and the ConArtists do not miss a chance to comment on the outlandish nature of Dickens’ Victorian England: the insecurely long last names of lawyers and the offices they work for, the unusual dialects and slang, and the underlying hint of aristocratic incest. The biggest laughs however come when the ensemble commit sincerely to the twisted world they have created such as Dungey’s subservience to Ashton’s wealthy unruly cat or Sautelet’s joy when seeing his father (also played by Sautelet) for the first time. 

There are times however when these asides detract from the narrative as a whole, which can be detrimental to a long-form improv, with some scenes taking a while to discover their game, delaying the transaction from occurring. Ashton and Dungay often come to the rescue of their fellow performers by providing the needed impetus to kick-start the scene.

The ending is left a little shoe-horned, with the task of the show – Reggie’s redemption and Estella’s empowerment – only really being tackled in the last 15minutes or so. But then I guess the same could be said for most of Dickens’ oeuvre.


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Finely crafted silliness creates contagious good humour

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 02nd May 2014

Charles Dickens wrote, “Fan the sinking flame of hilarity with the wing of friendship; and pass the rosy wine.”

He might well have been talking about Conartists production of Oliver Twisted, a long form improvisation which owes a lot to Mr Dickens and not overly much to his great serialised novel Oliver Twist or, as it was aptly subtitled, ‘The Parish Boy’s Progress’.

The journey changes in every performance because the audience sets the parameters but nevertheless what is created reeks of Dickens’ London, the workhouse and a Victorian England filled with faux humbuggery, podsnappery and bumbledom. 

Sure, in this iteration, Oliver Twisted has an orphanage, a handsome, down-on-his-luck hero (Peter Muller’s plays this somewhat maladroit fellow) and there are a couple of meanish, pick-pockety kids but there is no Fagin – Penny Ashton’s epiphany-prone orphanage matron came close – and Bill Sykes’ dog is missing in action. Even Lori Dungey’s wonderful cameo rat can’t replace Bull’s Eye the bull terrier, a sympathy grabber if ever there was one.  All this matters not one jot. 

There is, however, plenty more that is acutely Dickensian, which is pretty dashed clever when you consider that satirising a work which is itself a satire should be a seriously tricky proposition but in the hands of these Conartists it seems easy-peasy. 

The choice of venue – upstairs in a public house called the Horse and Trap – is singularly appropriate and provides the audience who are seated, and served, at tables with excellent sight lines. Even a hearing-impaired, older person like myself can hear almost every word.

The set is deliciously functional. Three clothes stands decked with bonnets, hats, shawls and the like, a tall rose-tree-in-a-pot that somehow finds itself integral to almost every scene, a couple of raised, workhouse-like forms, a pair of smallish blackboards on stands all in sepia/tan tones provide a fitting Victorian backdrop to the riotous action that fills this hour upon the stage, all of which is singularly reminiscent of a Fezziwig Christmas gathering: that drawing room style entertainment highly fashionable in Dickens’ day. 

The characters created by this excellent seven strong ensemble can best be described as stereotypical but, more often than not, they surprise with unanticipated depth. Lindsey Brown as the naïve heroine Lady Sarah Goodheart is touchingly Pickwickian in her simplicity and decency. Her singing – also a delight – is used to provide a major shift in character emphasis for three of the netherworld characters played to the hilt by the wicked Penny Ashton, the somewhat austere Madeleine Lynch and Marc Sautelet in naughty Artful Dodger mode. 

Peter Muller, the audience choice to play the heroic lead, is a gentleman of no fixed ability named ironically, also at audience behest, Heathcliff Emerald-Crunch. 

Emerald-Crunch, anticipating a considerable inheritance from the passing of his mother, is shocked to find from his jolly old Dad (Lori Dungey) that there is no legacy and that he is, to all intents and purposes, broke. Haunted ceaselessly by the terrifying ghost of his mother (Clare Kelso), he finds a job, finds love and finds an abode before rescuing his beloved Lady Sarah from the rat-infested basement of a London tavern where she is held by villains and awaiting a fate worse than death: transportation to Australia.

Observing this, his mother has a massive change of heart and shares with him where her secret stash of goodies is to be found and all ends happily. She has, after all, experienced hell, didn’t care for it much and this is her ticket to more temperate climes. 

The whole thing is monumentally silly, and it’s meant to be, but underlying the silliness and simple joy that Conartists generate there are finely crafted performances and a slick understanding of narrative progression that never lets the ball drop.

OK, never say never, but when there are minor glitches the resolution is invariably funnier than anything that has gone before. There seems to be little that audiences enjoy more than seeing actors smartly extricate themselves from some nightmarish web woven for them by fellow cast members and it must be said that Conartists are remarkably good at engaging with their audiences when these minor blips occur.

There are some great lines, the most memorable for me being Penny Ashton’s hateful matron who, on hearing Lady Sarah sing ‘Ave Maria’, gazes into the distance and croons “I’d better go and change me ways” and immediately goes and does just that. Ashton is at her glittering best in this work. 

Small character gems – and there are plenty of them – include the classic London villains Scuttlebum and Dogsbreath, Madeleine Lynch’s lanky coachman and newcomer Marc Sautelet’s one-legged crim-with-a-heart but, for me, the evening belongs to Lori Dungey, Clare Kelso and the irrepressible and incredibly gifted Penny Ashton whose collective verve, talent and simple narrative ability within a given style and form ensured a fun-filled and immensely entertaining evening for everyone, themselves included. 

In Stave 2 of A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote, “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.” He was right, of course, and Conartists understand this sublimely well and carry on that tradition with gusto and flair.

We are, each and every one of us, the better for it.


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