Cyphers’s adaptation of Great Expectations is an intimate storytelling experience, recounting Charles Dickens’s famous novel in what promises to be ’30 Years Of Memories. 90 Minutes Of Theatre’. The fast-paced blend of narration and dialogue is simple, slick and fluent and the ensemble work together skilfully to tackle the immense narrative in the limited time they have. In fact, time seems to ultimately defeat the company in this performance: over-running by approximately 40 minutes, rather than appealing to the audience’s imaginations, it races with them and I found myself painfully trying to recount the events of the story faster than the ensemble, simply in order to figure out how close we were to the end.
As a narrative intricately familiar to all theatre and literature audiences, (and pretty much most of the English-speaking world) it becomes all the more vitally important for such a piece to make its mark. In this case, and unfortunately so as the energy of the five-strong cast was truly commendable, it was almost entirely lacking in originality and at times the whimsical nature of the re-telling meant that it left its audience behind. The potential for power in the more devastating moments of the text was repetitively dispersed by its pandering to a private sense of comedy, inclusive for those that knew the cast and totally alienating and uncomfortable for those of us who did not. For a piece that prides itself on its interaction with its audience, this is a dangerous trap to fall into.
Pallavi Patel’s costumes were certainly one of the redeeming features of the piece, as was Chris Anderton’s natural drifting from character to character and focused approach towards the exuberant nature of the piece. Small flashes of real creativeness in style provided a breath of fresh air at seemingly random moments in the piece, yet I was left frustrated and confused as to why they were so sparse. For example, the physical chains, replaced instead by simply the sound of the chains on Magwitch’s legs as he walked, or the ensemble becoming the carriage on which Pip was riding, were simple but effective moments, such as are needed in order to elevate the piece from the well-known page. These haphazard snippets of storytelling magic left me more disappointed than relieved and above all irritated by the prospect of more of them to come and the subsequent lack thereof. The busy venue, The Proud Archivist in N1, and the gallery-turned-performance-space Cyphers play in is a dreamily intimate yet spacious setting for this no-footlights style of production, so it was even more of a shame that the magic that I’d anticipated was so sparsely distributed about the well-lit room.
This is a strong and close-knit ensemble and a young company looking courageously towards big ideas. Whilst their vigour can be admired, this re-telling of Great Expectations fell short (or indeed, long) of its outwardly promoted intentions and the piece failed to emerge with any originality as it played out its undercooked and lengthy depiction of Dickens’s epic tale.
Great Expectations is playing The Proud Archivist until 15 February. For more information and tickets, see The Proud Archivist website.