Writer: Charles Dickens
Adaptor: Ken Bentley
Director: Sophie Bryce Couzens
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
While Dickens semi-autobiographical 1861 novel focuses on the childhood and early manhood of Phillip Pirrip, or Pip, the central character is vastly overshadowed by the majestic ruin that is Miss Havisham. Abandoned on her wedding day, and living among the decaying wreckage of her wedding breakfast, the embittered spinster exacts her revenge on men, through manipulation of the beautiful Estella.
Young Pip becomes an early victim and climbs the ranks of London society in the hope of being considered worthy of Miss Havisham’s cold-hearted protege. In doing so, he is supported by an unknown benefactor, who eventually reveals himself to be the convict Pip had helped as a child, and unbeknown to almost all, the father of the icy Estella. Chastened by their trials, Pip and Estella are finally reunited.
A few sentences summarise a novel of over 500 pages, and many stage adaptations have similarly struggled. It does not help that Pip is scarcely the hero of his own story, but a pawn acted upon by the major players: Magwitch, Jaggers, Miss Havisham, Estella. So while there is drama to be portrayed, most of it is happening to others. Pip occupies similar territory to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: a bystander in the more dramatic events of other peoples’ stories. Ken Bentley’s adaptation is faithful to the essence of Dickens’ novel, but in choosing to make Miss Havisham the dramatic centre of the play’s universe, he has acknowledged the gravitational force exerted by the strongest personality in the story.
The inventive set design gives this centrality a physical manifestation. The gantry box which occupies the centre of the action – but not the centre of the stage – opens like a tabernacle onto the tattered hangings of the wedding feast, with Nichola McAuliffe’s Miss Havisham holding court in the remains of her romantic past. When the mesmerising eminence grise is not involved, the drama loses intensity as well as its visual lodestone.
The set is very important to the way this play works. It almost serves as an extra actor, which is no bad thing with most of the cast already playing four or five roles. But it is also restrictive; it becomes the arena in which all the important action must take place. Buxton Opera House has a vast stage, and with so much of the action tethered to the box at stage right, its scope was not explored or exploited. This is a touring production, and some venues may not offer such generous space, but it was still a shame to see the action so constrained.
Great Expectations is a sprawling novel, with a host of curious characters. This stage adaptation is more limited in scope and relies on only eight actors, two of whom are limited to playing only one role each. So ensemble skills and slick interchanges are essential to make the play work. Everyone involved acquitted themselves well, with Daniel Goode and Edward Ferrow leading the line. Ollie King merits special mention for contributing so much of the atmosphere by the subtle use of accordions and violin. While there are some more dramatic technical effects during the performance, Ollie’s setting of the tone was always finely tuned to the action.
Sean Aydon has the unenviable task of taking us on Pip’s journey from childhood to manhood, from rough rustic to city gent, from social underclass to pillar of society, through heartbreak, mortification, shame, and redemption. He manages these transitions with deftness, his assurance growing as the narrative progresses. The ending of the play – and the novel – may not be to everyone’s taste but Sean makes Pip’s journey seem believable, and his reconciliation merited.
Nichola McAuliffe does full justice to Miss Havisham. Ken Bentley has treated the character to some delicious lines, emphasising her mission to exact revenge for her abandonment, and also her despair at the cost of its fulfilment. McAuliffe makes the most of this range and manages to extract some pity for the generally unsympathetic monster.
Dickens did write for the stage, including plays to be performed by his friends and family. He acted himself. He loved the theatre, and may even have taken an actress as his lover. But he did not write Great Expectations as a stage piece, and he might be surprised that so many have tried to make it work in that format. But it is a story so rooted in popular culture, that it is no surprise to find it regularly resurfacing in new forms for new audiences. This production does more than most recent attempts to overcome the inherent undramatic features of the narrative and to keep faith with the emotional heart of the story.
Touring Nationwide | Image: Lisa Roberts