Settling into the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre after a national tour, this production proudly announces itself to be the West End’s first Great Expectations; surprising, since as Lionel Bart’s cornered the market on Oliver and A Christmas Carol has a seasonal sell-by-date it seems easily the most stageable of Dickens’ works. Following the ascending fortunes of its hero Pip with a refreshing lack of sick children, the narrative is tight and full of memorable scenes; a whistle stop tour of Dickensian town and country, this production covers all the sights, but doesn’t leave us much time to enjoy the view.
The orphaned Pip, played with impressive continuity by first Taylor Jay-Davies, then Paul Nivison, who also narrates, is taken in by his insistently invalided country sister, his only friend Joe the blacksmith. After a childhood punctuated by visits to Miss Havisham and her ward Estella, he is unexpectedly propelled into the life of a gentleman, a welcome foray into the high life sullied by a past that seeps out of the village. The aesthetic will be familiar – attractively so, depending on one’s feelings about Helena Bonham Carter – to anyone who saw Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd; gothic Victoriana, laced with black lipstick, cobwebs, and the special grime that can only accumulate in long indoor evenings of self-contemplation. Robin Peoples’ set, Miss Havisham’s house complete with superannuated wedding cake, is initially quite charming, but slight depression sets in as it becomes apparent that all hope for a scene change is in vain. The sense of Satis House as a ghostly mirror of the outside world, hushed and strange, is entirely lost; instead it and Miss Havisham become disproportionately central, her lurking figure a constant rebuff to the bustling households and London streets we are asked to imagine. In this feminised, domesticated world, Magwitch is emasculated, losing his aggressive allure, despite Chris Ellison’s impressively menacing demeanour; we lose the gritty nastiness of Dicken’s poverty, mud and prison ships, the omnipresent white cake a twee riposte to our hopes for a bit of Victorian violence.
The cast acquit themselves well, but are hamstrung by rather naff direction. In London, Pip is assailed by a chorus of black-eyed figures who’ve taken style advice from Uncle Fester, characters are forever popping their heads through holes in the walls whack-a-mole style, and in the climactic scene we distracted by a row of bravely waving black umbrellas, claiming to resemble a stormy sea. This is all rather fun, but lacks the polish you’d expect from a West End show, and crucially, sequins any darkness into campy goth kitsch.
The adaptation is ruthlessly efficient, compressing Dicken’s already uncharacteristically short – thanks to the strict managers of the periodical it was serialised in – novel into a bare two hours. Inevitably, much is lost. The Estella and Miss Havisham plot suffers least, becoming the stunted emotional heart of the play – their scenes manage to feel real and affecting, with Paula Wilcox’s Miss Havisham making effective work of an interpretation on the fearsome end of the will o’ the wisp-to-harridan scale. Pip’s home life, though, hammers out Dicken’s characteristic repetition of phrases until they dominate the short scenes, replacing characterisation with caricature. Easily the most awkward moments come from the comic scenes, with Pip’s arrival in London particularly agonisingly unfunny, despite several people bravely standing on tables and waving their hands.
This is an incredibly cohesive and careful adaptation, with everything you might remember from distant days of Dickens perusal neatly slotted into two halves. If its kept all the important plot points, though, it has stylised the atmosphere of persistent menace that haunts the original into the faded drama of a cobwebbed drawing room; sullied with gimmickry, it needs a good dusting.