In her programme notes, adaptor/director Kate McGregor writes of her long term fascination with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations along with her ambition of “giving Estella, Molly and Miss Havisham their time in the spotlight, and in doing so releasing them from the fate of being forever underwritten and universally misunderstood”.
It’s a bold statement, and boldness in the arts can have thrilling results. Dickens is often accused of under-writing women, and in some cases it’s a fair criticism – one thinks of the overly angelic Esther in Bleak House and the terminally cutesy Dora in David Copperfield. One doesn’t necessarily think of demented manipulator Miss Havisham and her ice queen adopted daughter Estella in Great Expectations. But perhaps removing these characters from the “male gaze” of their creator will allow them to bloom in surprising new directions…
If you’re wondering “Molly who?”, the third character is Estella’s birth mother, a fleeting figure in the original novel but here promoted to joint lead, representing an alternative narrative for her daughter.
Plot-wise, McGregor has changed little: wealthy but heartbroken Miss Havisham raises Estella as a weapon of vengeance because – as we are told over and over again – “Men are brutes, and people are cruel”. Local scruff Pip is drafted in for Estella to practise being mean to, and falls hopelessly in love with her, only to be teased and taunted over the years until she ups and marries the cad Bentley Drummell.
The prospect of delving deeper into these characters is exciting, but the play doesn’t deliver on its promise. Miss Havisham remains bitterly vengeful, and succeeds in raising Estella as she intended, but there’s no fresh insight in this scaled down version of the story. Perhaps a more experimental approach would have suited the ambitions of this play – departing more significantly from the source material in order to reflect back on it in an interesting way? What’s the point in shining a new spotlight on someone and then having them perform the same old act? There’s talk of “unheard voices” but nobody emerges with much to say.
The one area of originality is in raising the profile of Molly. Originally a murderer “tamed” by lawyer Mr Jaggers, here she’s presented as the antithesis to Miss Havisham’s twisted world view in a potentially thought-provoking encapsulation of the old Nature vs Nurture debate: how would Estella have turned out if she hadn’t fallen into Miss Havisham’s clutches?
But this single point of intrigue is lost in a sea of dullness. Somehow McGregor has contrived to transform Dickens’ gothic melodrama into a pale imitation of the original. The cast are fine but can’t achieve much with this oddly neutered adaptation. The musical interludes, whilst well performed, add nothing to the proceedings, and despite all best intentions Estella takes a classic and turns it into something strangely and unsatisfyingly insipid.
Adapted and directed by: Kate McGregor
Produced by: Theatre6 & Tales Retold
Estella is playing until 4 July. Further details and booking info via the below link.