Review: Great Expectations

A dramatisation of an entire Dickens novel is no mean feat, and Jo Clifford’s adaptation of Great Expectations delivers on all accounts the fear, cruelty and horror that the novel and the countless adaptations provide. Clifford’s play, directed by Graham McLaren, provides the traditional Dickensian elements that an audience would instantly recognise – the whimsical gentlemen, orphaned urchins, criminals and madwomen who move about a London writhing in death and disease. However, there are moments when Great Expectations veers from the novel’s course so wildly that the play twists itself into an unrecognisable form. From this unfamiliarity arises a dangerous mix of eccentricity, madness and vulnerability: the results are unexpected and the effect is explosive.

Clifford’s Great Expectations is much darker than perhaps even Dickens could have perceived. The explorations of the desires and greed that push young orphan Pip into a life forever marred with the violent and disturbing memories of childhood are readily embodied by the harsh, ugly bodies of Mrs Joe (played by Isabelle Joss) and her companion Wopsle (played by James Vaughan), whose top hat is almost as tall as the tales he spins. Characters move about the set in a spidery, atmospheric trance whilst Tim Burton-esque, cobweb-strewn costume and set design evoke an atmosphere of decay, both symbolic and actual. Annie Gosney and Graham McLaren’s costumes are innovative, most notably Wopsle’s, who is clad in resemblance of the Mad Hatter; his garish attire reflects the whimsical absurdities of the character and instantly reflect a little of the insanity that surrounds them all.

In the play’s more threatening scenes McLaren is quick to convey the ruinous effects of Pip’s dangerous aspirations. After being mocked by the arrogant Estelle, Pip desires nothing but to better himself and become a gentleman. Pip’s desires govern his actions and assisted by fate, he receives funding from an unknown benefactor. He thus begins a supposedly successful life in London as an eligible gentleman. Yet the extent to which Pip’s self-determination gains him wealth and comfort is constantly questioned. Through Clifford’s Great Expectations it becomes increasingly obvious that Pip has been ‘created’ – used and acted upon by others whose own desires suffocate his own. Director McLaren leaves such fragile questions suspended on stage, and one scene involving Pip’s newly employed servant cleverly combines comic relief and sharp sobriety in conveying the ignorance and vulnerability of the new Pip and his ever-changing situation.

It is failure and the theme of ‘broken dreams’ that is threaded most repetitively in web of mistrust spun by this production. In Dickens’ London, deceit is the order of the day and any possibility of harmony, of reconciliation, or indeed love are rendered cruelly fictitious. Pip (played by Taylor Jay-Davies) is at once fragile and headstrong whilst lawyer Jaggers, perpetually self-centered, proves, just once, to recognise and value the honesty and decency that Pip desires – one well-acted scene between them becomes at once both poignant and deeply tragic. There is evident conflict between the ‘old’ and ‘young’ in the play too, with an older Pip narrating events as they occur. The audience, it appears, are in fact entering Pip’s memory itself where dialogues overlap, where flashbacks are commonplace, characters disappear into holes in the walls, mirrors conjure moving images of past recollections and ghostly lace veil of Miss Havisham (played by Paula Wilcox) enshrouds all in Pip’s fractious memory.

Clifford’s adaptation, which remains consistent to the original Great Expectations, comes to life with its own successful character portrayals and imagination. It is a successful adaptation that condenses Dickens’ complex plotline yet expands its potential as a gothic horror story with exciting additions and wonderful character rendering. The result is a cleverly styled and wonderfully executed performance, which renews this ever-popular work of Dickens with a darkly original and exciting creativity.

Great Expectationsis now on a National Tour. For more information, tour dates and tickets, see www.GreatExpectationsThePlay.com – Want to get your hands on £10 tickets? AYT has an offer for readers, see our Ticket Offer page with details.