Writer: Ken Bentley, from the book by Charles Dickens
Director: Sophie Boyce-Couzens
Reviewer: James Garrington
Great Expectations is undoubtedly a great classic of English literature, one of the most popular and well-known Dickens novels that has been studied at school and loved by many. It is also quite long – though far from the longest Dickens wrote – and includes a vast number of characters and locations. It’s not an ideal basis for a stage production, creating many challenges around how to best present it with a small touring company in a single play on stage.
Actually, it is managed pretty well under the circumstances. James Turner has designed a single piece of scenery which serves to represent all of the locations needed for the story, from marshes to Miss Havisham’s house, and it is well-lit by Richard Williamson to add to the feel of each specific location. This single set means the production avoids long scene changes and helps to keep things moving. All well and good, but it doesn’t quite do the job. In an age where we are used to seeing television adaptations of the classics, the need to fit so many locations onto a stage makes it feel cramped and restricted, lacking in visual impact. The result is a piece that sometimes feels almost like a series of disconnected dramatised scenes rather than a play, a feeling that is emphasised by the cast adding narration from time – a device needed to avoid the audience being completely lost about what location and period we are currently watching.
This leaves it up to the cast to tell the story, and on the whole, they do a good job with the material they have, making the best of a long and gentle play that lacks any high drama or comedy. Almost all of the cast of eight play multiple roles in this production but without exception the changes in accent and mannerisms that they employ make it clear who they are playing at any particular time. Edward Ferrow makes a lovable Joe Gargery, with Eliza Collings intriguingly playing both Mrs Joe and Biddy. James Camp is a friendly Herbert Pocket, Daniel Goode a suitably threatening Magwitch and James Dinsmore a nicely self-opinionated Pumblechook.
Nichola McAuliffe gives Miss Havisham a less overtly scary air than is often the case – though possibly an element of this is down to the set, where her house consists of little more than a few white drapes. Instead, this Havisham is more insidious in the way she bows Pip and Estella to her will which actually feels more disconcerting. She treats Pip and Estella like playthings, with an assured domineering air with no question of accepting any disobedience and exhibits a gleeful joy when they do what she wants.
Sean Aydon (Pip) and Isla Carter (Estella) both give creditable performances too and manage the transition from child to adult very well. When we first meet Pip he is seven years old, a working-class child uneasy and uncomfortable in the presence of strangers, and over the course of the play Aydon transforms well into first a young man out of his depth in London, then a self-assured gentleman. Carter’s Estella is a spiteful, spoilt and arrogant child who develops first a girlish enthusiasm in the company of men, then a gentle humility as a widow.
This is a faithful but undramatic re-telling of a classic story of class division and social mobility, issues that are as relevant today as they were when the book was written. Gentle and unassuming, it works well as a reminder of the book, but less well if you want to see a truly engaging or dramatic piece of theatre.
Runs Until 5 May 2018 | Image: Lisa Roberts