Review: Great Expectations, Southwark Playhouse

Frames draped with fabric stand on either end of a long catwalk. Hannah Wolfe’s set is simple but it allows greater focus on the talented cast. The structures evoke the towering, industrial heights of Victorian London; Charles Dickens’ urban jungle of smoke, steel and stone erupting outwards from the banks of the Thames. And the long aisle between them: the marshes – impossibly vast with a cloying mist hanging low in the air. 

This is the gothic landscape of Great Expectations, a tale of chance criminal encounters, deranged brides, heartbreak and secrecy. The National Youth Theatre’s REP Company host an engaging incarnation of this classic tale under Mumba Dodwell’s meticulous, skillful direction. 

They are a master class in ensemble work, moving with slick precision and ease through the performance space. They crawl, crouch and weave around Pip creating a beautiful visual metaphor both for the impersonal frenzy of London and for his life spent internally conflicted and confused. At times they congregate at either end of the aisle as sneering jurors, crying out in unison like a Greek chorus. It adds arresting complexity and intensity to Pip’s internal monologues. 

As our protagonist, Joseph Payne is sensational as Pip. His timidity, sensitivity and distinct morality make him instantly likeable in the original novel and equally so in this production. Payne’s inflection and expressive eyes make him extremely effective as a young man thrust unexpectedly into a world of class and deceit. In moments of pain his shoulders curl inwards like an autumn leaf and his lips tremble. His new gentlemen’s attire sits awkwardly upon his frame in a way that Mr Drummle’s (Billy Hinchliff) do not. He is an outsider to this cutthroat society of convention and old money. 

Payne is commendably supported by the rest of the cast. It is heartening to see a diverse cast with great natural chemistry. Alice Franziska is a perfect casting choice for the supremely damaged Estella. Both she and Pip are unwittingly manipulated by their elders to vicariously atone for their own pains. As a child she is cruel, conceited and takes delight in abusing Pip, as an adult she is cold and detached. Yet, there are moments when Franziska allows the tiniest sliver of pain or joy to emerge, and its effect is blistering as we watch Pip ruin himself in a futile pursuit of her love. 

Tiwalade Ibirogba-Olulode casts a haunting figure as Miss Havisham. She enters slowly, dirty veil obscuring her face, the percussive tap of her cane on the floor the only sound as she drags her tattered gown behind her. Yet she is not the ethereal character we are accustomed to seeing in film and television. Ibirogba-Olulode chooses to portray her as far more calculating and bitter. It is a rare treat to see a Miss Havisham less deranged with grief and more vengeful. 

Jordan Ford Silver and Jadie Rose Hobson skillfully portray the affectionate Joe Gargery and his tyrannical wife. There is genuine sadness as Pip’s and Joe’s initial parting for the only loving presence in Pip’s young, troubled life. Jamie Foulkes as Mr Pumblechook and Guy Clark as Mr Jaggers must be particularly commended as stand out comedic performances. 

Tom Gimson’s soundtrack is heartfelt and atmospheric and an essential component to the performance. Some characters do struggle with the fluency of Received Pronunciation. This unfortunately is distracting and takes us out of the story. Additionally, some performers seem to be holding back from fully investing in their characters. Nevertheless, this production shows the continued versatility and appeal of this Dickensian adventure.

Great Expectations is playing the Southwark Playhouse until 28 November. For more information and tickets, visit the Southwark Playhouse website.