Great Expectations, Vaudeville Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews
Great Expectations, Vaudeville Theatre
Hopes are dashed and expectations thwarted in a creaking literary adaptation
There’s nothing novel about novel-adaptations on stage. We’ve seen every classic from Pride and Prejudice to Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Woman in White (and The Woman in Black) get the full theatrical treatment, and I’m not sure any have ended up the better for it. The power of a tale is in the telling, and unmoored from the delicate narrative handling of an Austen or a Dickens things can go horribly awry. And so it is with the West End’s latest – a touring production of Dickens’ Great Expectations that has stumbled mistakenly onto The Strand and is doing its best to brazen it out.
Jo Clifford reconceives Dickens’ epic as a memory play, told among the gilded ruins of Satis House – cobwebs clinging to every episode and character as they emerge through leaking walls and from under creaking floorboards. It’s an efficient (and cost-effective) structural device that should allow for a fluid progress through the action but doesn’t, and one that gains nothing either psychologically or dramatically in the doubled figure of Pip, who appears simultaneously throughout as both child and man.
Dickens' comedy is apparently surplus to requirementsThe adult hero (Paul Nivison) haunts the action desperately in hope of a line, occasionally shocked out of constipated silence to deliver passages of forgettable scenic description or to plug narrative gaps, while his younger incarnation (Taylor Jay-Davies, pictured below) declaims effortfully in the foreground. Although the action remains stubbornly rooted in a single set, the accents from the ensemble cast roam freely across most of the British Isles – a blessed distraction at least from the hacking about of Dickens’ dialogue.
His comedy is apparently surplus to requirements as is his meticulous precision of descriptive observation and (more forgiveably) most of his characters. When you’re cutting the book down to a tidy two hours I appreciate that there isn’t time for subtleties, but Clifford’s approach to her Dickens carcass is to throw away the flesh and the fat and try and make a meal out of the melodramatic gristle and the bones of plot.
Director Graham McLaren’s take on Dickensian grotesque looks a lot like Tim Burton, and staggers in and out of tonal focus. Dickens poises his characters on the knife-edge of horror and humanity, but here they tip either too far one way or the other. Josh Elwell as Joe Gargery is rather touching in his simplicity, but loses energy in dialogue with the limp Jay-Davies. James Vaughan strays unwisely into Mad Hatter territory with Mr Wopsle but recovers for a chilling Mr Wemmick, while Grace Rowe’s Estella lacks more than she offers.
There’s interest to be had from Paula Wilcox’s too-beautiful Miss Havisham, but not quite enough derangement to balance her fey charm, and the less said about the prancing camp of Rhys Warrington’s Herbert Pocket (unaccountably confined to the mantelpiece for all his action) the better.
Robin Peoples’ set is a gorgeous gothicke fantasy of liver-spotted glass and fading gilt, and (an over-reliance on dry-ice aside) the show certainly looks the part. But it’s a lone consolation among so much confusion. “As Dickens adaptations go I think I preferred A Muppet Christmas Carol,” one departing theatre-goer observed. Too right.
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