Great Expectations is possibly Charles Dickens' most accessible work. A Christmas Carol aside, there have been more adaptations of this tale of multiple lifestyles and misplaced gratitude than any other of Dickens' great works.
Multiple lifestyles and, inevitably, multiple settings bring challenges to theatrical adaptations that are not easily overcome, especially when there needs to be an emphasis on simple story-telling, where costumes and props and other period-specific aspects need to be sufficiently accurate but not to the extent of taking over the stage. Paul Morton's production, augmented by Chris Janes' set design, managed this juggling act superbly. The set was no more than seven doors set in a semi-circular wall, each of different style or design, but each representative of the different lifestyles that Pip experi- ences, aspires to, or longs to escape from. The cast of seven, all apart from Pip (Gavin Palmer) playing multi- ple roles, moved around and through these doors with ease and fluidity that belied the twists and turns of the story. And quickly, too: the whole show was done and dusted in under two hours or playing- time, but with no significant loss of plot. Some might con- sider this form of theatre to be somewhat austere, but for me it suited the needs of the story perfectly. When Pip needed to be surrounded by conflicting voices this was easily achieved; when Pip's isolation and, occasionally, desolation needed to be brought to the fore, every door could be shut on him.
This is Dickens' most darkly autobiographical novel, so the character of Pip is imbued with a special significance. Gavin Palmer's portrayal was straightforward and honest, with a simplicity that suited the need to narrate as well as experience the story. In his earlier scenes as the young blacksmith's mate (not yet an apprentice) there was a touching pathos about his description of the graveyard where his parents and siblings lay, and nothing was lost by not having a younger actor play the younger Pip. At all times he allowed the audiences' sympathies to remain with Pip, even when Pip's choices were not the wisest.
Joe Gargery and Mr Jaggers in many ways represent the polar opposites of Pip's life, as his only father figure as a young boy and the blacksmith he might be apprenticed to at one end, and the shrewd, influential solicitor who advises him (to some minimum extent) in the financial and legal aspects of his higher life at the other. Therefore, to have both parts played by the same actor was an interesting theatrical device (although I don't know whether I should give credit for this to Mr Bartlett as the adaptor or Mr Morton as the director)*. Chris Janes played this joint role with excellent distinction and presence, with a theatrical tic of Jaggers always trying to clean his hands, to remove the stain of having to deal with some of his less-than-reputable clients.
But Jaggers and Gargery weren't the only roles to be appropriately doubled. As Mrs Joe (Pip's one remaining sibling) and as Biddy, Karen Greely also had to play the opposites of women in the Kent marshes scenes of Pip's life. As the permanently-grumpy Mrs Joe her disdain of Pip (particularly when being buttered-up by Andy Kirtley's Pumblechook) was palpable, and I'd have liked Mr Bartlett's adaptation to have given a little more time to Biddy, representing as she does the better, kinder side of that impoverished life. There was a nice comic interjection in her third role, that of Jagger's careful (but ultimately caring) clerk Wemmick.
Andy Kirtley had the thankless task of playing all the villains of the piece. Dickensian villains aren't pantomimes, they're far more subtle, despite the efforts of Lionel Bart et al to prove otherwise This task ranged from the officious and self-aggrandising Mr Pumblechook, through Magwitch's nemesis (and, as we learn, Miss Havisham's intended husband) Compeyson, to the unpleasant Bentley Drummle, with a stop along the way at Sarah Pocket, complete with headscarf, one of the many Havisham hangers-on who can only see the money and can't wait for her to die. And it would be easy to dismiss these multiple characterisations as merely caricatures, but they were more than that, particularly Pumblechook. All right, maybe Sarah Pocket was a bit over the top, but that one was forgiveable.
Dickens provides opposition to the grotesques in the form of more clean-cut characters, particularly Herbert Pocket, who fights with Pip on first meeting at Satis House but becomes his friend in later years, helping him spend his money, no doubt wisely, and the slightly ridiculous Mr Wopsle, clerk of the church in Kent whose ambition is to be an actor. Patrick Sunners played both parts with competence, capturing well the enthusiasm of Pocket for either a good clean fight or a properly-decanted port, but remaining a staunch and reliable friend during the drama of Magwitch's attempted escape.
This leaves us with Magwitch, Estella, and Miss Havisham, the loci around which Pip's life revolves. Mel Powell's Magwitch was, in his few short scenes, spellbinding: able to convince the young Pip of an unseen accomplice who would eat his heart and liver, yet with enough heart to recognise the lad's kindness and do what he could to repay it. His attempted escape down the Thames which forms the climax of the story was well played by all, with a particular light in Mr Powell's eyes that saw freedom within grasp and yet still slipping away. Tamsin Goodwin-Connelly played Estella, the girl with ice instead of a heart who represents all that Pip desires in the world. I always feel that as Miss Havisham's protégé, Estella as a character in her own right is slightly underwritten, and we learn more of her from other characters' reactions (Drummle's, for example) than we do from Estella herself.
Yet she has a wonderful moment when she warns Pip that in playing up to oafish gentlemen like Drummle she is seeking only to entrap and deceive them, and that is something she cannot do to Pip. It's the one moment when we get to see the real, un-Havishamed Estella, and Ms Goodwin-Connelly played it well.
But productions of Great Expectations must of necessity live and die not with Pip, nor Magwitch, nor any of the others, but with Miss Havisham. Her cobwebbed heart and its sick fancies, whether they be to string her relatives along so that they wait on her in their own expectations of legacy, or to bring Pip and Estella into conjunction only so that she can break his heart, are the beating centre of the story. Davina Foster's portrayal was excellent. She had an other-worldliness in the scenes with the young Pip that would have anyone nowadays screaming for Pip to stay away, and as we saw them again in later scenes we could see that there was a slowly-dawning realisation that even if men could be manipulated in the way she desired, ultimately it would do no good to her. With such simple staging, one wondered how the great fire that finally consumes her could be presented, but in the end it was, like the production as a whole, effective and convincing.
All of the backstage elements were handled competently. Shelagh Maughan's costumes suggested the periods perfectly and Tony Mason's music was haunting. The occasional sound effects from Jackie Clark and Mr Mason added to the atmosphere, and overall this was an outstanding production. Mr Morton's direction was sure-footed and, I sense, brought a real esprit de corps to the company. The need to tell a multi-faceted story concisely and swiftly was always to the fore and it gave the production an emotional heart that was both entrancing and warming.
Editors note: *Credit (and thanks) should go to the adaptor for the casting of Andy Kirtley as Sarah Pocket. Great Expectations came runner up in Hertford Theatre Week, claiming the Ted Harden Rose Bowl and Ken Allford came away with the adjudicators award for lighting the production.
Reviewed by Russell Vincent, Photographs by Steve Beeston.