Theatre Review: Great Expectations

Date Posted: 14/02/2013

How well does Dickens work on the stage? Carrie Martindale went to see the West End’s latest adaptation of Great Expectations to find out.

Something rather different awaits visitors in the West End this spring; Dickens’ well-loved tale of personal and spiritual development, Great Expectations is being played out in all its Victorian glory beneath the dainty proscenium arch of the Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand.

Cast members of note are Chris Ellison of The Bill fame, playing an almost perfect version of convict Abel Magwitch (with influence straight out of the 1946 David Lean film), and Jack Ellis (most well known for his long-term role as evil warden Fenner in prison drama Bad Girls) as lawyer Jaggers. Paula Wilcox plays Miss Haversham.

I’m afraid I must begin with a spoiler alert. The entire play is set in one of the dilapidated rooms of Satis House, home to the middle-aged, bitter and manipulative Miss Haversham; her of the eternal wedding gown fame.

Satis House is possibly one of the most well known locations in the novel, and its subsequent film and radio adaptations. But what of the misty landscape where Pip first encounters the desperate convict Abel Magwitch, or the London office of the lawyer Jaggers, or the touching moments between Joe Gargery the blacksmith and Pip in the forge?

These scenes are played out, but they are all played out in that one setting, and I felt like I lost out because it. A great deal of money has been spent on the fabulous set, but perhaps it might have been better spent on a couple of scene changes.

It’s a claustrophobic atmosphere in the auditorium – accentuated by the constant dry ice drifting like a London particular into the audience, the gloom and doom of the lighting of the stage, and the relentlessness of that cobwebby set.

I felt sad that the row of 12 year old school boys in front of me had their heads lolling in their laps, or were surreptitiously glancing at their brightly lit phones. Great Expectations isn’t exactly the cheeriest of tales, but it has oodles of humour, romance and comedy alongside its tragedy. More than enough to entertain; or it wouldn’t be Dickens.

So what I found really disappointing was in fact other people’s disappointment. This is a brilliantly entertaining story (see the 1946 David Lean film starring Alec Guinness and John Mills) and yet this version gives the illusion that Dickens is heavy going. After 40 minutes of Act One I felt like I had been sat there for the full two hours – not a great feeling.

However, if you enjoy the Gothic, then you may very well enjoy this version. The music is splendid, with the costumes (and some of the characters) frighteningly Tim Burton-esque, and the Gothic elements of the tale lets the smoke-filled auditorium ooze darkness, dankness and despair.

So, as Joe Gargery would say, “What larks Pip?” Well sadly, there weren’t quite enough larks in this play for me, but you don’t always have to take my word for it.

Great Expectations is currently playing at the Vaudeville Theatre until 1st June. You can also catch the show in cinemas throughout the UK from 21st March. Group rates are available for parties of eight or more, from Monday to Thursday evenings and Wednesday matinees.

For further group travel information visit www.greatexpectationstheshow.com.

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