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Great Expectations, Bristol Old Vic | reviews, news & interviews

Great Expectations, Bristol Old Vic

Great Expectations, Bristol Old Vic

Lively new Dickens adaptation from the master Neil Bartlett

The death by fire of Miss Havisham Mark Douet

Neil Bartlett, as he has demonstrated in his earlier Dickens adaptations of Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, knows how to make gripping theatre out of a complex work of fiction. His Great Expectations rattles through the twists and turns of Pip’s coming of age with a pace that rarely lets up, so much so at times, that there is perhaps not enough space for reflection and  the emotional complexity of Dickens’s mature doesn't fully come through.

Bartlett has a command of storytelling through the transformation of everyday objects, the surprise and mood-changing potential of light and sound design, and the deft direction of an excellent cast of actors, seasoned and new. The problem with theatre descended from the great Jacques Lecoq via Complicité (of which Bartlett was one of the original members) is that the medium, in this case the enchantment of the material world at the service of the dramatic imagination, can sometimes dominate the message. The accumulation of stunning effects from the production’s masterful creative team feels occasionally exhausting and perhaps, as well,  exhausted, as if one more use for a table, after it has embodied a horse and a blacksmith’s forge, ends up feeling merely spectacular.

This is a show sparkling with theatrical brio that is nevertheless oddly uninvolving

But Neil Bartlett does spectacle incredibly well, and there are plenty of moments of sheer theatrical magic. The front-lit stage has a row of spots that cast an eerie light on the protagonists, their more than life-size shadows looming menacingly on the bare panels at the side and back: a mixture of Victorian noir and expressionist gloom. He handles abrupt changes in narrative perspective with a finely crafted battery of light-changes and sonic shifts – transitions from Pip’s inner monologues or the rhythmic and often humourous interventions from a chorus of subsidiary characters to the powerful and more naturalistic enactment of the novel’s iconic scenes: in the graveyard, through the dark labyrinth of Miss Havisham’s house or in the urban whirlwind of London. While the closing drama on the Thames, as Magwitch is rowed to the Hamburg steamer, feels a little laboured, Miss Havisham’s death by fire provides the evening’s high point, as an abyss of horror is opened by her screams, and lighting and sound underscore the evening’s most terrifying moment.

Pip (Tom Canton) and Estella (Laura Rees)Adjoa Andoh brings to the part of the embittered old lady a spine-chilling reptilian quality: she moves and speaks as if venom were running through her veins. But her monstrosity is tempered at times by an almost reluctant tenderness towards the “boy” Pip. In the first half, Laura Rees (pictured, to the right) plays Estella as a perverse teenager, with a present-day body language that feels oddly anachronistic and yet works. It’s hard at times to see why Pip might fall so hopelessly in love with her, but his masochism is undoubtedly one of the emotional engines of the story. Tom Canton (pictured, to the left) manages pretty well – not least the transition from boy to man, from humble blacksmith’s apprentice to London gentleman – though his stage presence doesn’t always match the power of the other players, not least Tim Potter who moves skillfully from the hard-nosed coldness of Mr Jaggers to the open-hearted generosity of Joe Gargery or Martin Bassindale’s always evocative movement in the parts of Herbert, Compeyson and Mr Wopsle. The pervasive darkness of the tale is relieved by Miltos Yerolemou’s brilliantly comic double act as Mr Bumblechook and Sarah Rocket.

In a story which explores so potently the presence or absence of “feelings”, this is a show sparkling with theatrical brio that is nevertheless oddly uninvolving, at least on the emotional front: as if the business of story-telling had become more important than the transformations of the human heart that should deeply engage an audience and in the end take precedence over the theatrical fireworks Bartlett has undoubtedly produced.

  •  Great Expectations at the Bristol Old Vic until 2 November
The accumulation of stunning effects from the production’s masterful creative team feels occasionally exhausting


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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