The Theatreguide.London Review
Vaudeville Theatre Spring 2013
Jo Clifford's adaptation from Dickens began life 25 years ago as a theatre-for-schools project, and despite several rewrites and for-adults productions the air of the classroom, the coach trip and the teacher's discussion guide still hangs over it.
That is not to say that it isn't a fully professional, occasionally striking production, just that it feels more good-for-you than good for its own sake.
Clifford and director Graham McLaren set the entire story in Miss Haversham's house (impressively decayed-grandeur set by Robin Peoples) sometime after the end of the novel, as the mature Estella (or perhaps just the memory of her) encourages an older Pip to relive the novel's story in an attempt to make sense of his life.
The rest of the show is then a string of flashbacks narrated and observed by the older Pip – the boy's brief encounter with the escaped convict Magwitch and the eccentric recluse Miss Haversham, his falling into money and into love with Estella, the discovery of his real benefactor and of his briefly lost values.
As plot summary of the novel it's fine, as capture of the novel's many shifts in mood less successful, and as a coherent and involving drama somewhat less.
For one thing, adaptor, director and the several designers have chosen – perhaps in an attempt to make things more 'theatrical' or 'Dickensian' – to portray Dickens' more colourful characters as grotesques and cartoons in whiteface, exaggerated costumes and broad playing styles.
So Wopsle, Wemmick, Jaggers and Pocket not only seem to inhabit a different world from the more realistically presented characters, but their clowning repeatedly breaks whatever hold the story may have on us.
That's a particular shame because the actors in the central roles are working so hard to involve us in their experience. Paul Nivison conveys the older Pip's anguish at reliving his pain, while Taylor Jay-Davies takes us engagingly through young Pip's maturing experience.
Paula Wilcox may not be quite creepy enough as Miss Havisham, but she captures her imperiousness and unhappiness, while the adaptation gives Grace Rowe as Estella a more central role in guiding and teaching the hero, a burden she carries movingly.
Great Expectations the novel is great melodrama. Great Expectations the play feels too much like it would be most successful at schools matinees.
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