Almost every other review I’ve read of Jo Clifford’s adaptation of Dickens’ classic bildungsroman has kicked off proceedings with an obligatory pun on its title. Compelled to do the same, I should therefore point out that I trundled off to Great Expectations the play at the Vaudeville with absolutely no expectations whatsoever, seeing as decades of TV and film productions have taught us nothing if not that Dickens adaptations really can go either way.
My expectations were raised somewhat after seeing the set, which really is stunning. Cobwebs hang from absolutely everything in the elaborately decorated room set up, emphasising the eerie presence of jilted bride Miss Havisham, with her rotting wedding cake given centre stage. There’s also a mantelpiece, windows with light artfully streaming in, chairs and even light fittings. It’s impressive. Which is a good job really, as it is the only setting we see for the entire production, but more on that later. Fresh from a UK tour, this show is the first full length Great Expectations to ever be presented in the West End. And cast aside, unfortunately at times it is easy to see why.
It’s clear that the play wanted to bring out elements of the book you may well discuss in a book group or seminar, but miss on a casual read through. This dogmatic following of the themes of the novel, however, whilst admirable, and fairly rare these days, means that many ideas feel thrown in and at odds with the nuances of a stage show. Taylor Jay-Davies does a good job of heading up the cast as young Pip, but this is spoiled somewhat by the haunting presence of his older self, played by Paul Nivison. Whilst this is certainly an interesting idea, and draws attention to the novel as a first person memoir, you can’t help but wish that he’d just give the poor boy five minutes to hold the fort on his own without the constant fear of accidentally tripping up his adult persona. It’s nothing short of a relief when one finally sits down and leaves the other to it.
Jay-Davies' earnest performance is matched by that of the equally genuine Josh Ellwell, as Joe Gargery, with Jack Ellis (Jaggers), Rhys Warrington (Herbert Pocket) and Sarah Robertson (Biddy) giving other performances of note. Grace Rowe grates a little as Estella, but her impassioned final speeches go some way to reconciling her to us, and Paula Wilcox certainly looks the part as the infamous Miss Havisham, but lacks the presence to make the character as terrifying as she should be. Difficult though it admittedly is to match a theatrical performance to a well-established literary character, the majority of the cast leave a little to be desired when held against their fictional counterparts, leaving most of the play feeling a bit flat.
This isn’t helped by the lack of set changes. In a show where none of the performances particularly grab you, and the lines of the story are blurred by the aesthetics of trying to include a visual representation of every trope, as an audience you start to daydream about set changes. Maybe one will happen when Pip goes to London? No. Maybe there will be a different set in Act 2? No. I fully appreciate that, given the detail of the Miss Havisham set, budget may well have been an issue, but then again it does seem as if some sort of statement was being made through the use of only one set of scenery. I’m not 100% sure what it was, but I think there was one in there somewhere. Again, this is admirable, but as a Great Expectations as well as theatre fan dying to see what the famous graveyard and marsh scenes would look like on a stage, I was more than a little disappointed to see them played out on a dining room table. The whole thing looks beautiful, don’t get me wrong, despite the fact that the heavy handed Gothic moments make you wonder if Tim Burton didn’t direct a considerable part of it, but again it’s as if the creative team got a bit caught up in the idea of showing the production in cinemas, and forgot about the fact that, first and foremost, the action is happening on a stage.
I’m told that somewhere in the foyer there was a note about how we ‘won’t see another Dickens adaptation like this for 200 years’, or something to that effect. And no, I daresay we won’t. He remains as notoriously difficult to adapt as ever, with only one of the many individual threads of the wider tapestry of each piece ever managing to be tugged at once, leaving the others forgotten about and neglected. Like Miss Havisham herself, perhaps Dickens should be left alone for a bit? Not necessarily in a dusty room with a rotting cake like Paula Wilcox but just on a shelf, in a book where he belongs.
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