If you are looking for a traditional Dickensian tale of London, prepare yourself for something slightly different. Tanika Gupta’s adaptation of the classic Great Expectations still sees the class divide through broad Northern accents and the token cockney against crisp Received Pronunciation, but placed in the streets of Calcutta and the colonial mansions of imperial aristocrats. The classic tale of Pip, employed by Miss Havisham, enthralled by Estella and rewarded by an unknown patron, has been re-imagined by Gupta and brought to life by director Nikolai Foster in an array of fabrics and music.
Tariq Jordan brought a wonderful sincerity to the character of Pip, beginning as a 12-year-old full of imagination and vivacity. His progression was subtle and realistic, maintaining his character but developing into a gentleman with ease and a natural growth. Jordan provided a solid foundation for the story. His initially innocent adoration of Estella became a true source of anguish which captivated the audience, the top hat and tails never quite hiding the earth-bound fervour of Pip.
The uncanny Miss Havisham was grasped by Lynn Farleigh, carrying the bitter, melodramatic air of a wounded woman in an expressive and haunting way. Almost the ‘wicked witch’ of the play, her desperation seeps through until her breakdown in the second act, where she is revealed to be a poor, lonely old woman with far too many regrets. Farleigh plays beautifully next to the younger actors, and holds herself as a completely parallel character to the rest of the story, alienated and devastating in her dilapidated colonial home.
Pip’s sister and brother-in-law were an odd pair, mismatched but devoted, and Pooja Ghai and Tony Jayawardena (Mrs and Mr Joe Gargery) were almost comic relief in places, Shiv Grewal’s nosey Pumblechook a similar role. Jayawardena’s Joe was jolly and heart-warming, sensitive but proud, as he stands in clothes too tight. Ghai and Grewal, though both a little forced, provided the cultural nod to families who spend lots of time together in the small Indian village, and added to the eclectic nature of Gupta’s piece.
Colin Richmond’s set was simple but effective; the dilapidated shutters reflected the poverty of the village as well as having a subtle statement about the source of the aristocracy’s wealth when the same shutters transformed into large double doors. Though the number of set changes were a little distracting, especially in the second half, the clever use of fabric created vibrant and energetic backdrops without the need for vast cycloramas or stage pieces. Though saying this, the lighting by Lee Curran was the perfect combination of emotional symbolism and set enhancement, washing the stage with the warm hues of Indian summers.
Great Expectations is a hard-to-place production by the English Touring Theatre. Moments such as a slightly out-of-sync dance routine made me question some of the director’s concepts, but the relationships and on-stage reality brought the piece together and created a visually stimulating comment not on race, but on class. It is never easy to transform a literary classic into a spellbinding stage show, but Gupta and Foster do well in this lively, engaging performance of class division, hope and self-discovery.
Great Expectations is playing at the Richmond Theatre until 9th April. For information and tickets see the website here.