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Great Expectations

by on 13 March 2018

Spirit, Humour, and Humanity

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens, adapted for the stage by Ken Bentley

Malvern Theatres and Tilted Wig co-production at Richmond Theatre until 17th March, then on tour until 23rd June

Review by Celia Bard

In going to this production of Dickens classic, Great Expectations at Richmond Theatre I wondered what could make this one stand out from the many adaptations that have gone before? Condensing such a long and involved story that doesn’t go on for ever is something of a challenge.

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In short, Pip’s story is that of an orphan, his early beginnings from childhood to adulthood and his attempts to become a gentleman. I was curious to see whether this new stage adaptation by Ken Bentley and directed by Sophie Boyce Couzens would succeed in capturing the spirit, humour, and humanity of the quintessential world of Dickens. I was not disappointed for Bentley successfully manages to weave together the story’s many complex subplots. This was achieved through elements of the narrative being spoken by all actors from different stage levels, and the imaginative use of mime, music, physical movement and sudden outbursts of song. All the main characters are present, suitably attired in Victorian costume and recognisable despite some doubling up of characters.

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What makes this production stand apart from others is its modern theatre set designed by James Turner. Its dominant piece of architecture was that of a metal cube built on the diagonal that morphs seamlessly through time and space from a blacksmith’s forge to Miss Havisham’s house to Pip’s lodging. However, I found this structure had some limitations. The front corner of the cube (down stage centre left) limits the acting area and causes some sight-lines problems, and I wondered whether this part of the cube’s structure was necessary? At times I was striving to gaze through metal horizontal struts to see the actors.

Of period furniture there is little, and this liberates the audience from a literal representation of the drama. Instead it provides a mental landscape of the mind-set of the characters as well as allowing actors greater freedom of movement to embody the characters they are playing. What was most effective were the voile drapes hanging from the walls of Miss Havisham’s room, symbolising her physical and mental imprisonment. Like the voile her mind is shrouded, a condition that blinds her to the cruelty of her actions, driven by her relentless quest to seek vengeance on all men. Superb lighting effects heighten the atmosphere and mood of the action, none more so than Miss Havisham seemingly going up in flames, and the glow from the furnace in the blacksmith scene against the background rhythmic sounds of metal being beaten into shape. What I found interesting was the use of actors in providing sound effects, accentuated by the spotlight being focused on them. Here I was in two minds: momentarily it breaks the illusion but on the other hand I was impressed by this team of actors working together, and this comes across very clearly throughout the production.

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Sean Aydon, playing Pip, is superb in all stages of his mental and physical development from boy to man. This is displayed through both voice and physicality. His emotional range is also striking: sometimes fearful, at other times arrogant, insensitive, jealous, and then the more loving, generous, and understanding behaviour of a more mature Pip. This is a fine performance.

Nicola McAuliffe as Miss Havisham looks fantastic and plays this role with a level of humanity that I have not before seen in this character. This was not a two-dimensional characterisation. At times she is loving as demonstrated by the stroking of Pip’s hair. She takes pride in Estelle, very much admiring her prettiness and she genuinely seems to enjoy the children playing together. However, like many people suffering from a mental illness, she is subject to mood swings, and then we witness her cruelty and her over-riding urge to seek revenge through Pip and Estelle. The remorse she feels in her final moments before going up in flames is very moving.

Isla Carter captures Estelle’s wilfulness beautifully. A memorising feature of her performance is her ability to communicate through dance her wayward and ice-cold personality: she is wound up like a clockwork music box dancer.

James Camp presents the audience with a charming and highly entertaining Herbert Pocket. This actor has excellent timing and is the perfect companion for Pip.

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Eliza Collings is amazing in her ability to portray several different characters including Mrs Joe and Biddy. The same is said of Edward Ferrow who plays Joe Gargery and other characters.

James Dinsmore must be applauded for all the roles he played, namely, Pumblechool, Compeyson, Jaggers, Orlick, Aged P, and Ensemble. This actor has a great stage presence, a superb voice, and the ability to make the audience believe in all the characters he plays.

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Daniel Goode as Magwitch succeeds in capturing the roughness and brutality of his character, but in Act 2 there was a problem with his lengthy monologue. Not certain whether dialect or restricted acting area affected concentration and conciseness of speech.

For me the jury is still out on the design of the cube. Overall, I found this production impressive notably for the quality of the acting, its pace and energy and the cohesion of different aspects of theatre including mime, dance, and music. The interaction between the actors is superb. Ken Bentley’s adaptation of Great Expectations is well worth seeing. One can hope that the production will lead to many rediscovering Dickens: perhaps he still has something to offer as insight into the modern world.

Celia Bard
March 2018

Photographs by Lisa Roberts Photography




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