Directed by Graham McLaren
Pros: Enthusiastic performances from all the actors with their imaginative interpretations of the theatrical antecedents of Dickens’ characters.
Cons: Lack of structure to the first half of the show lets it down, plus the use of only one (albeit beautifully crafted) set.
Our Verdict: The show is visually impressive, but if you are a Dickens purist then go with an open mind. Banish those preconceptions and appreciate the fact that 150 years on, Dickens is filling the Vaudeville Theatre in London.
I have never read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, but many years ago I “half watched” a TV adaption of the novelist’s sprawling epic, starring Ray Winstone and Gillian Anderson. I therefore attended the Vaudeville Theatre with no preconceived ideas of how this novel should be interpreted for the stage. Even though Dickens loved the theatre, Great Expectations has never made it onto the stage in the West End.
The first thing to say about this adaptation is that the set does not change throughout the whole two hour and twenty minute performance. The stage at the Vaudeville is vast and as the curtain is raised you find yourself gazing into Miss Havisham’s very grand, high ceilinged, decaying dining room at her residence, Satis House. It is frozen in time and in need of a good dust and hoover. The choice of decor, eggshell blue painted walls with gold leaf trim, is quite stunning. There is a grand fireplace and a huge two-way wall mirror, which is ingeniously used to great effect later for flashback scenes. In the centre of the room is a gigantic sturdy dining table. It needs to be sturdy for all the action it sees later in the show.
The story begins at what is quite a frenetic pace. Young Pip (played by Taylor Jay-Davies) is suffering mentally and physically at the hands of his guardians (played by Josh Elwell and Isabelle Joss) and fate then takes a hand as he bumps into escaped convict Magwitch, played superbly by Chris Ellison. Many will recognise him from his stint playing Inspector Burnside in The Bill. It is just a shame you only get to see his “bad man” act in the last fifteen minutes of the show.
Paula Wilcox, who plays Miss Havisham, deserves a special mention. Pip believes her to be his benefactor and saviour, as he tries to escape the horrors of his childhood. It is a delightful but haunting performance, aided by creepy make-up and a once elegant wedding dress. Actually, all the actors’ costumes are imaginative and one wonders if designers Annie Gosney and Graham McLaren are admirers of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Certainly they seemed to have used some of the beauty and colour found in this fantasy worlds.
The impressive set, costume and acting, could not quite save the first half though. There is little structure to the storyline and I wondered how non-Dickens’ fans would be able to make sense of the plot. Bizarrely Adult Pip (played by Paul Nivison) remains on stage throughout, mostly in silence, occasionally narrating. He looks like a lost footman in need of a job. There’s a good performance by Pip’s love interest Estella, to help move things along (played by Grace Rowe) with a graceful dance around the dining room in Pip’s arms.
Another oddity is the constant use of the dining room table by the actors to stand on. I personally didn’t mind; being only 5ft 2 inches tall and sitting quite far back in the stalls, I could see more of the stage, but I couldn’t understand why this was at all necessary. The constant lighting changes and overuse of the smoke machine also makes looking at the stage difficult. I actually wondered if the Vaudeville was on fire towards the end of the first half, the stage being fully immersed in a red glow and smoke. Luckily the show picks up in the second half as the pace of the storytelling slows. The stage lighting becomes more natural. There is also a strangely hypnotic cabbage patch doll dance and an enjoyable singing in the rain tribute towards the end.
All the actors give energetic and clean performances throughout. If you are a Dickens purist, then maybe this adaption is not for you. As the curtain came up at the end, the woman behind me exclaimed, “Poor Dickens!”. Everyone is of course entitled to their opinion, but perhaps this person had too great an expectation to start with. How do you condense an epic book like this into a little over two hours? It must have been a difficult task. Just because something is difficult, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try though; and the actors and production team do try, I give them that.
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!
Great Expectations runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until 1st June 2013.