Having the previous day seen Charles Dickens himself in action (well, Simon Callow doing a first rate interpretation at any rate – click here) it seemed a good moment to launch into a stage version of one of his greatest novels. Great Expectations, in this adaptation by Jo Clifford, opts for a memorable staging and ripeness of acting which gets the narrative done in brisk order but ultimately opts for style over substance.
I must have seen dozens of adaptations (including Eddie Izzard’s recent one man reading – click here) but this one starts at the end with the adult Pip meeting Estella at Miss Havisham’s Satis House and then looking back over his life. Thus, the narrative becomes a memory play occurring at the time of the meeting rather than a chronological narrative of events. This, to me, partly misses the point of the original in that Dickens’ novel charts the gradual progress towards understanding of the blacksmith’s boy turned gentleman and one of the most dramatic openings in the literary canon is denied its prominence. What it does provide, however, is an excuse to keep everything rooted within the single set designed by Robin Peoples. Actually, this aspect of the play is really well done as the decay and rot are palpable. There are cobwebs over everything and that includes the costumes. However, it is a shame that the expanses of the marshlands of Pip’s boyhood and the teeming metropolis of London really cannot be evoked in the way that was so memorable in the RSC’s famed Nicholas Nickleby. The final boat trip down the Thames is a particular disappointment and lacks real tension.
The director Graham McLaren has chosen to emphasise the artificiality of many of the characters by adopting a grand guignol style which is heavy on white face paint, black eyeliner and gruesomely outlined mouths. While I started by thinking “here’s something different” I’m afraid the effect soon palled, and it became a little tiresome seeing one scene trying to out Gothic the next. The character of Mr Wopsle is particularly bizarre in a hat as tall as he is and what amounts to little more than a clown’s costume. As the decision had been made to conflate this character with Uncle Pumblechook it is all a little unsatisfactory if you know the original. There is also the small matter of Herbert Pocket giving modern etiquette lessons while doing the Ministry of Silly Walks on the mantlepiece. Indeed, the propensity of the cast to clamber all over the furniture at the drop of a hat (Mr Wopsle’s or otherwise) starts to grate after about the third example. The whole production owes somewhat of a debt to the stylings of Tim Burton who, if ever they decide to make a film of this version, should certainly be in the frame for directing.
There are some valiant attempts at characterisation with Christopher Ellison a terrifying Magwitch and Jack Ellis and James Vaughan making a suitably nightmarish duo as Jaggers and Wemmick. Paula Wilcox hits all the right notes as the embittered and clearly sexually frustrated Miss Havisham. The mania in her eyes is palpable and her death by fire is one of the high points of the show; hers is probably the most satisfactory interpretation of the evening. Grace Rowe’s performance of Estella starts shakily but grows in confidence throughout the play but her highly significant role seems rather underwritten. Josh Elwell thankfully resists the temptation to make Joe a rather slow yokel, but Isabelle Josh’s Mrs Joe is straight out of pantomime. Taylor Jay-Davies and Paul Nivison work well together as the young and adult versions of Pip although the latter has to do rather too much standing about looking like he is remembering painful events and could have been used to better effect in some of the narrative passages.
The latter is one of the casualties of the adaptation as everything is done and dusted in under two hours. As the novel spans some thirty years and a multitude of locations this is no mean feat but the adaptation misses much of the richness and variety of the original and emerges as a rather précised attempt for someone who cannot be bothered with the book. As The Mystery Of Charles Dickens the night before revealed, the author was addicted to theatricality so in that sense this version of one of his greatest novels is an absolutely suitable homage and, at least it doesn’t try to replicate the sort of sweep possible in a serialised television adaptation. Personally, though, I’ll be sticking with the book!
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