Condensing one of Dickens’ best loved novels down into an eagerly awaited stage production is an ambitious undertaking, but this is what Neil Bartlett and the nine cast members of Great Expectations have chosen to do this autumn at the Bristol Old Vic.
I arrived at the theatre with the classic 1946 movie looming large in my mind and a great deal of curiosity as to how this production could possibly rise to the twin challenges of competing with its iconic predecessor and bringing Dickens’ vast world to life. In answer to the first, it cannot; although given that it is such a different beast it is perhaps ill advised to go expecting it to.
With regard to the issue of conjuring up the world of Dickens’ novel, much of the atmosphere is generated by an eerie soundscape and striking lighting design, most notably for me during the hunt for the escaped convicts out on the open moors and to depict Miss Havisham’s horrifying death scene. There was no attempt throughout to hide the vastness of the Old Vic’s stage, which is impressive and worth seeing in itself. Scenes were made using only a few tables, chairs and old doors, moved about by the cast in choreographed sequences that invite the audience to use their imagination to construct everything from a horse and carriage and Pip’s humble blacksmith home, to Miss Havisham’s labyrinthine mansion and the stews of old London town. On a couple of occasions the doors are used to create reveals that are as pleasing as any good magic trick however, the use of microphones to amplify certain lines over others felt clunky to me, as did some of the scene changes where the cast seemed to struggle with unco-operative tables on wheels.
Miss Havisham, played by Adjoa Andoh in a manner that at times brings to mind a mutant hybrid of giant spider and Wicked Witch of the West, steals the show. “She’s creepy!” whispered one of the children closest to me, and indeed she is. Tom Canton as Pip, and Laura Rees as Estella did a passable job of playing their characters from childhood through to adulthood, although some of the more exaggerated childish mannerisms rang false and ultimately grated. A far more subtle stage presence comes from Tim Potter’s skillful portrayal of his dual roles as Joe Gargery and Mr Jaggers, and Timothy Walker’s haunting Magwitch.
The action takes its time to build through the first half, only for the pacing to pick up to a frenetic level after the interval. I was seated with a number of groups of young people of various ages and it became clear that they were struggling to keep up with the twists and turns of the story. A number of times I heard “I don’t get it” and just after Miss Havisham’s demise, one child turned to his parent to ask “Is she still alive?” The play had lost quite a few of them by the time a curtain fell, judging by the increased level of whispering and fidgeting.
Ultimately, I found the production unsatisfying. Some excellent performances and effects couldn’t make up for the times when my ability to suspend my disbelief became strained or was entirely broken by the awareness that I was watching a cleverly staged play. By the end I just wasn’t engaged enough to mind that the quiet denouement of the piece was accompanied by a young audience member rustling her way into a chocolate bar
Great Expectations is showing at Bristol Old Vic until 2nd Novemeber
– Review by Sam Maher