By Charles Dickens, and adapted by Jo Clifford
Vaudeville Theatre, 404 Strand, London, WC2R 0NH
Booking to June 1, 2013
Condensing Great Expectations into two hours is a challenge, memorably achieved in David Lean’s 1946 B&W film. One of Dicken’s finest novels, it has so many elements (thriller, social comedy, gothic horror, satire, melodrama, farce and love story) with disappointment, misunderstanding, snobbery, cruelty and love. Like life, it’s all there, and above all turns on the characters’ emotional complexity.
Jo Stafford wrote the original version of this play in 1988, combining dance with the spoken word and featuring Alan Cumming. This version, at the classically lovely Vaudeville Theatre, has been re-worked and expanded, and uses some clever devices. A cast of thirteen are hardly off stage, with Commedia dell’arte masks used to great effect, especially in the chilling hanging scene, and an echo of Harlequin in Jaggers’ jacket subtly points to his pivotal role in Pip’s life.
Robin Peoples’ wonderful set, a large decaying room in Miss Havisham’s Satis House is inventively used to portray every scene, and remind us throughout of the destruction wreaked by unhappiness. It begins by an older Pip’s return to Satis House, conjuring memories of the past. The older Pip remains on stage throughout, watching and narrating as we see his memories through the cobwebs, beginning with his childhood aid for escaped convict Magwitch, and on through his journey into adulthood, disillusions and disappointments.
Jo Stafford’s adaptation dwells on Miss Havisham’s creation of a heartless Estella to wreak revenge on men (for which read Pip in this version), bringing neither Estella nor Miss Havisham happiness. Paula Wilcox makes an excellent Miss Havisham, one of the best I’ve seen, and Chris Ellison as Magwitch is perfect casting. Grace Rowe plays the glacial Estella with too much emotion, and her accent isn’t clipped enough to differentiate her from Pip’s world. Taylor Jay-Davies as Young Pip performs well, yet never earns our sympathy. Paul Nivison as Adult Pip looks sombre, yet his disappointment is never voiced. Perhaps a final soliloquy would help? This is Pip’s story, yet we don’t really feel ‘with Pip’ as in the book.
Redacting a few characters and chapters is no great loss, but it seemed at times as if this was a musical with the song and dance removed, a superficial romp through the story, missing the emotional complexities of the novel. Graham McLaren’s staging has reduced most of the characters to cartoon-like figures, with exaggerated costumes, whitened faces and exuberant performances. Mrs Pip for instance, is portrayed as a Pantomime Dame, yet she’s a spiteful nasty, disappointed character in the book, and surely Mr Wopsle was actually Mr Pumblechook in the novel, an entirely different character.
That said, this is an energetic and good-looking production that would be a perfect introduction to Dickens, especially for children, for whom the emotional baggage would present too much of a challenge. And it has whetted my appetite to re-read the book (again!).