Writer: Charles Dickens
Adapter: Jo Clifford
Director: Graham McLaren
Reviewer: Mary Tapper
Can this two-hour version of Great Expectations capture the feel and narrative thread of this great epic in so little time? Is it possible to put together a stage version that does not feel like a shallow imitation of the book?
Here the answer is a resounding yes, on both counts. Jo Clifford has skilfully knitted together scenes and characters to create a beautiful gothic wonder of a play with hazy recollections and the real feel of the grotesque relationships involved.
Great Expectations tells the story of Pip, a poor orphan boy looked after by his cruel sister and her far friendlier husband Joe. Pip is summoned to Miss Havisham’s house to play with her adopted daughter Estella, and falls deeply in love with the girl. Summarily dismissed months later he returns to work with Joe at the forge and dreams of bettering himself, only to receive the call to London, and an education, from a mystery benefactor. As the tale unfolds we explore class and belonging and how upbringing affects later hopes and dreams.
Clifford’s version is clever and clear. We start the play with Estella and an older Pip (played with great style by Paul Nivison) looking round Miss Havisham’s room, reminiscing about the past. Then the tale is told as an extended flashback with old Pip remaining on stage to narrate at points and even joining in with his younger self to emphasise dialogue. This device is incredibly effective as it makes the whole production have a dream like quality to it. All the action takes place in the one room with our imaginations employed to conjure up the settings and, with characters appearing and disappearing through chimneys, behind propped up pictures and into shadows, it always feels supernatural. Dry ice is also employed to great effect and with a supporting cast looking like a cross between a Tim Burton movie and the zombies of Michael Jackson’s Thriller the whole piece is a magnificent concept.
The front room, where the play is staged, also deserves special mention – two walls extend up, as if for ever, with only one curtain picked out in scarlet, to add a splash of bright colour. Cobwebs hang from candelabra filled with thick gothic candles, as a huge table dominates the room, complete with decaying wedding cake. The lighting throughout the production is excellent with spotlights used to great effect and darkness enveloping characters that fade from the action. Sound, too, is excellent with music adding to the atmosphere, but not intruding, and small detail added, like the ticking of a clock in one scene. Costumes are fabulous with cobwebs added in later scenes and no expense spared in the lavish choices throughout.
Miss Havisham, played with great gusto by Paula Wilcox, stays on stage, huddled at the side, for most of the time, and then leaps into action, resplendent in a superb gown that at once seems ragged and yet sparkles with gems. Some of the strongest scenes are between Wilcox and Grace Rowe, playing Estella, as they circle the table hurling accusations at each other. Rowe plays the part with just the right mixture of haughtiness and vulnerability and has good chemistry with young Pip, played well by Taylor Jay-Davies.
Direction is excellent. The first scenes are played with a violent urgency, as we believe that Pip is in danger not only from outsiders, but violently treated by his own sister. The scenes between Pip and Estella are touching and full of longing. Magwitch, played by Chris Ellison, transforms in an instant from kindly fellow to frightening vermin and emphasises the poetry of Dickens’s dialogue. Even the lawyer Jaggers (Jack Ellis) elicits our sympathy, in the end, with a lovely change of style and pace. The ending of the play is both haunting and effective and as we leave the theatre, a tiny bit shell shocked, it is like re-entering another world.
A thrilling, imaginative adaptation that deserves a wide audience – see it if you can!
Runs until 3rd November
Picture: Alastair Muir