Writer: Charles Dickens
Director: Graham McLaren
Reviewer: James Higgins
It seems apt that in the year we have celebrated the great Charles Dicken’s 200th birthday, a new adaptation of arguably his greatest book has arrived. Great Expectations was first adapted by Jo Clifford in 1988 but this time she has rewritten it again so it may travel to London – remarkably the one place it has never been! Incredibly, not once since its original publication in the 1860s has the novel been presented as a full-length play in the West End, so that is where this national tour – commencing here at Richmond Theatre – will finally set up shop.
The play opens with a sense of foreboding as we are transported to the eerie static set (Robin Peoples) that remains in situ for the duration. At first glance this is the dark, musty and claustrophobic interior of Miss Havisham’s dilapidated Satis House but on second glance it is so much more. A huge room in a mansion with a single large table, it becomes many other places through use of clever lighting (Kai Fischer), smoke and mirrors. With a little imagination on our part and some clever directing we visit the marshes of Kent, Joe’s humble forge, and various London scenes both inside and outdoors. There is also a particularly impressive use of flames, a very real and attention-grabbing special effect.
As would be expected with any stage adaptation of Great Expectations, many of the characters of the novel have more peripheral rôles here with Drummle, Wopsle, Mrs Joe and Herbert Pocket becoming almost token. This, however, seems a necessary evil and though the story is substantially thinned does allow the running time to be just 2 hours with the effect that the story flies along maintaining our attention for the whole duration. As chief varmint Magwitch, we are blessed with Chris Ellison’s great snarling take on the old dog (perhaps drawn partly from his long stint as the dastardly DCI Frank Burnside from The Bill).
We are delivered two different versions of Pip, a young one under Miss Havisham’s spell played superbly by the fresh faced Taylor Jay-Davies and the adult Pip (Paul Nivison) who narrates from around the room adding well-directed gravitas to the character. There are good performances too from Wemmick (Brian Pettifer), Jaggers (Jack Ellis) and Estella (Grace Rowe). Of particular note though, Steve North gives us a convincing Joe Gargery full of warmth and humbleness, a character with real heart and Paula Wilcox is as unrecognisable as she is excellent playing the heartbroken Miss Havisham, whose torment never leaves her.
This is an unusual and refreshing version of Great Expectations that still manages to weave Dickens’ magic on us, worth a look now before it heads towards the West End, after a 200-year-long wait!