A Dickens of a classic show

Pip (Taylor Jay-Davies) and the mortally wounded Magwitch (Chris Ellison) fail in their escape surrounded by their captors. Pictures: Alastair Muir

Great Expectations

The New Alexandra Theatre

****

THIS sumptuous production of one of Charles Dicken's most loved novels is a fitting tribute for the writer's bicentenary year.

Writer Jo Clifford has done a great job in compressing the story down to two hours 15 minutes missing out all the sidelines and sub-plots to leave us just with the story of the orphan Pip, the fabulously rich but mad as a hatter Miss Havisham and her daughter Estella.

There is a downside to this Great Expectations- lite in that some of the secondary characters such as the ingratiating Wopsle, (James Vaughan) the heartless lawyer Jaggers (Jack Ellis) and even Mrs Jo (Isabelle Joss) are reduced to two dimensional cut outs from a Hogarth cartoon – but that is the price paid to avoid turning the whole thing into Wagnerian length.

And despite having little meat on the bones the minor characters make a larger than life impact with one particularly poignant scene when Jaggers tells Pip how he entered the profession of law to make a difference and help people – and after watching child after child bred to hang now does no more and no less then he is paid to do.

Paula Wilcox is unrecognisable as the barmy spinster Miss Havisham and her superb performance culminates in a truly spectacular death by fire – with real, towering flames!

Paula Wilcox as the disturbed Miss Havisham

Director Graham McLaren uses Robin People's single set, Miss Havisham's once spectacular and now faded and crumbling drawing room, to good effect with a fallen picture providing an extra entrance, shadowy figures behind a huge mirror and a large dining table which acts as a second stage along with characters mounting and speaking atop assorted furniture and the mantelpiece.

When the flickering candles are on we are with Miss Havisham, when they are off it could be Joe's forge, London streets or the marshes of Kent.

 It is up to the audience, aided by sound effects and lighting to fill in the scenery. The adaptation uses two Pips. Pip the man (Paul Nivison) is first the narrator then the watcher  in the background as we watch the life of Young Pip, played by the excellent Taylor Jay-Davies, unfold.

His love for Estella, played haughtily and beautifully heartlessly by Grace Rowe, is half the plot and the reason Pip is so desperate to be a gentleman. Estella's inability to love or care is the other half as we follow a doomed romance.

Chris Ellison, taking a break from being a copper in The Bill to join the criminal classes as Magwitch, is truly sinister as the escaped convict but by the time he dies in his cell – cheating the gallows in the process – we feel quite sorry for him.

Magwitch, and his secret funding, has perhaps the biggest influence on Pip's life but it is a close run thing with blacksmith Joe in the background. Steve North gives the labouring artisan a real human touch with his stuttering attempts at mixing with gentlemen and his affection for Pip.

Clifford has kept the essential story with not too much left as a distraction from the central story of Pip's coming of age and thwarted love and although purists might wonder where the flesh of the book has gone she has kept the essence of Great Expectations, which is no mean feat, and the 15 strong cast have told the tale well.

Roger Clarke 

And in expectation . . .

 *****

THIS remarkable production of Charles Dickens' classic story, cleverly adapted by Jo Clifford, probably exceeds the expectations of many people in the audience.

Even before the cast arrive on stage, Robin Peoples' stunning set immediately propels the audience into the action as they gaze at the cobweb-festooned living room in the home of wealthy and eccentric Miss Havisham who, years after being jilted, still wears her faded wedding dress.

Then the extraordinary range of characters start to appear, sometimes hopping onto the table where her crumbling wedding cake stands, occasionally speaking from atop other pieces of furniture and even, in one case, strolling along the huge mantelpiece.

Sounds bizarre, but it works, and there is a spectacular scene with leaping flames when the bitter woman sets fire to her home.

 Paula Wilcox impresses as Miss Havisham who adopts young Estella and raises her to become a beautiful woman coldly breaking men's hearts as revenge.

 A superb performance, too, from Taylor Jay-Davies as young orphan Pip, wrongly believing Miss Havisham is his benefactor when he becomes a gentleman hoping to win the love of Estella (Grace Rowe). Chris Ellison is a suitably menacing Magwitch, the scary convict never forgetting the kindness he received from the lad when on the run, and there are fine contributions from Paul Nivison (Adult Pip), James Vaughan (Wopsle), Steve North (Joe Gargery), Isabelle Joss (Mrs Joe, Sarah Pocket and Molly) and Jack Ellis (Jaggers).

Directed by Graham McLaren, Great Expectations  is part of the Dickens bicentenary celebrations. To 13.10.12

Paul Marston 

Home Grand   Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre