Writer: Charles Dickens
Adaptor: Tanika Gupta
Director: Pooja Ghai
Not a decade goes by without another adaptation of Dickens’s Great Expectations. You don’t need to have read the book (and, in all honesty, probably most of us haven’t) to have a mental image of Miss Haversham, the aging jilted bride, locked away in her creepy house, or of Magwitch, the dangerous criminal on the run.
So Tanika Gupta’s 2010 adaptation both has a lot to live up to, and a challenge to bring something new. And it does. Gupta sets the play in Bengal in the years around the first Partition, overlaying the story with a whole new visual and thematic layer, while remaining absolutely true to the original themes of class, educational and social aspiration, love and loss. Dickens’s Pip become Pipli, a young orphan being brought up by his sister and her husband in rural Bengal. It’s a poor but loving home, and Pipli can’t wait to get out.
When an unexpected windfall comes his way from a secret benefactor, Pipli (Esh Alladi) moves to Calcutta, where he seeks an education and a bit of upward mobility. Moving in colonial circles, dressing in ‘English’ clothes and sharing rooms with posh boy Herbert Pocket (Giles Cooper), Pipli is doing okay, but he still carries a torch for Miss Haversham’s adopted daughter, Estella (Cecilia Appiah), and he just can’t shake off her cruel disdain about him being low, dirty and smelly. Social mobility is a tough journey, especially against a backdrop of colonialism, racism and political unrest in a volatile, divided country.
Director Pooja Ghai manages to pull all these strands together in a pacy and compelling production that beautifully retains all of the poignancy and wit of Dicken’s rich story. Rosa Maggiora’s set design and Joshua Carr’s lighting create a lush, sun-bathed setting, contrasted perfectly with Miss Haversham’s dingy, shuttered world. Maggiora’s costumes help establish a place and time, as well as Pip’s journey from impoverished boy to man about town.
While the Creative Team are firing on all cylinders, they also have a great cast to work with. Esh Alladi convincingly transforms from the bouncy, carefree ten-year old Pipli to a suave and self-assured young man. Giles Cooper is a brilliantly bumbling Herbert Pocket, and Andrew French brings a whole new take on the escaped convict Magwitch (here becoming Malik). The standout performance, though, is from Catherine Russell. Her Miss Haversham isn’t the ghostly, wasting beauty so often seen in adaptation. Russell gives her a tougher, uglier, over-bearing presence that almost, but not quite, disguises the broken woman she really is.
The play is full of action with Ghai using the Royal Exchange’s sometimes challenging space well. Fight scenes are particularly well handled (directed by Rachel Bown-Williams), the occasional physical movement scenes – and lots of running in circles – less so. It’s just an unnecessary distraction and adds to an already slightly overlong production.
While knowing the original story will add something extra – the clever changes are entertaining in themselves – you don’t need any prior knowledge to enjoy this Great Expectations. It would, in fact, make for an interesting first exposure to it, given that it’s an all-round entertaining production that looks great, keeps you engaged, is full of wit and packed with morals. A great start to the Royal Exchange’s Autumn Season.
Runs until 7 October 2023