He knew how to spin a good yarn, did that Charles Dickens. His penultimate novel is so beloved that it seems strange that we haven’t seen more stage adaptations – although, it is undoubtedly an intimidating one to tackle, given its length, number of iconic characters and tendency to hop genres (part coming of age story, part Gothic horror, part social commentary).
Director Lucy Bailey and writer Michael Eaton have succeeded in creating a fast-moving, exciting and fun version of Dickens’ classic that clocks in at just on three hours – still a long play by anybody’s standards, but there’s so much to enjoy here that the time flies by. From the minute we see Magwitch escape from his prison boat onto the misty Medway marshlands in a gloriously atmospheric opening scene, you just know you’re in for a treat.
Eaton has pared down the story slightly, removing some of the more superfluous characters (Herbert is the only member of the Pocket family to remain) and redrafting the roles of others (such as Pip’s main adversary Dolge Orlick) – he strikes the balance between retaining the original spirit of the novel and creating an evening’s entertainment absolutely perfectly. Bailey keeps things moving along at a fair old pace by utilising Mike Britton’s revolving stage set which enables easy transitions from a country pub, into a London office, into Miss Havisham’s enormous mansion.
Bailey’s large cast serves her well too, especially the younger ensemble. On press night, Sullivan Martin plays the younger version of Pip, and is certainly a name to watch for, carrying most of the scenes he’s in admirably, while Rohan Green almost steals the show with a short cameo as the young Herbert Pocket. Of the adult cast, Jane Asher is the star name here, and her Miss Havisham is truly remarkable – sinister and vindictive, yet with a sense of sadness and raw humanity still apparent.
Daniel Boyd is a genial and amusing adult version of Pip (the transformation between the younger and older Pip is cleverly handled), and the story really comes to life when he arrives in London to become a ‘gentleman’. Boyd has great chemistry with Patrick Walshe McBride who plays Herbert Pocket with a huge amount of camp humour, and there’s also some knowing, crowd-pleasing digs at the Bullingdon crowd in Pip’s initiation ceremony which prominently featuring a pigs head.
There are, admittedly, moments where you have to suspend dramatic licence – just minutes after Pip wishes aloud that he could become a gentleman in London society, along comes Jaggers the lawyer to grant him that very wish, and Miss Havisham’s final demise is somewhat disappointing – what should be a pyrotechnic spectacular comes over more as a slightly damp, misfiring squib. Yet that’s more than balanced by some of the memorably visual set-pieces that Boyd creates: Pip’s constant visions of a young Estrella taunting him, or his memories of a menacing Magwitch coming to life.
It’s an epic in the truest sense of the word, one that remains faithful to its source material while never feeling remotely like an anachronism. For anybody wondering how to bring Dickens’ world to life in 2016, this is required viewing.
Great Expectations is on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 2nd April 2016. Click here for tickets.