The new season at the West Yorkshire Playhouse is well under way, and it’s shaping up to be an awesome one. Currently residing in the Quarry Theatre is their production of Charles Dickens’s beloved novel Great Expectations, in a new adaptation by Michael Eaton and directed by Lucy Bailey. I looked forward to seeing what the team had done with the classic tale.
As a recap, Great Expectations follows the story of young orphan Pip (the young version played by Rhys Gannon in this performance), who’s been raised by his sister Missus Joe (Rose Wardlaw) and her blacksmith husband Joe (Bill Nash) in the marshes of Kent. While young, Pip encounters escaped convict Magwitch (Ian Burfield) and is tasked with stealing him some bread and a file to remove his shackles. Soon after this, Pip is also tasked with visiting lonely spinster Miss Havisham (Jane Asher) and her young adopted daughter Estella (Imogen Cole in this performance). Destined for a life in the forge, Pip’s world is turned upside down when he’s told that an unknown benefactor has great expectations of him – and he’s given the funding to become a true gentleman.
From then on, the stage is set for a tale of coming-of-age, classism and unrequited love. It’s an epic narrative to carry, but the whole team of performers in this production of Great Expectations do well to support it. There is some excellent characterisation across the whole ensemble, who portray their main characters (as well as a host of others) incredibly well. The older Pip (Daniel Boyd) does a lovely job of crafting and conveying a character that hasn’t been born in the world he’s thrust into, never quite mastering the eccentric, young gentleman strut like his friend Herbert Pocket (Patrick Walshe McBride).
Asher’s Havisham is also well-crafted, not quite being sinister enough to be a baddie, but icy and rigid enough to be untrustworthy. Consideration of physicality from all is constant throughout, and it’s this important aspect of characterisation that’s needed in a production that brings together multiple characters from different backgrounds.
While the performances are noteworthy, I must say that the real star of this production for me has to be Mike Britton’s gorgeous set. Drawing inspiration from images of shipwrecks and prison ships from the time of the novel, there are plenty of jagged and haunting silhouettes that come into play throughout the production. After all, it’s Pip’s first encounter with Magwitch that ignites the spark of the narrative, and Britton has cleverly created a reference point to this important dramatic catalyst throughout the piece with this set design. Not only is it striking to look at, but it’s functional too, as it revolves several times throughout, bringing audiences into both interior and exterior locations seamlessly. Often laid bare for a more stylistic approach to some scenes, the set fuels the imagination of the audience in true theatrical style, and allows the company of performers a space to navigate the highs and lows of Dickens’s narrative.
Chris Davey’s lighting design also draws on an equally haunting yet beautiful cold palette of colours, which illuminate the world of the play nicely. Combined with Britton’s set design and Emma Laxton’s eerie musical interludes between scenes, you have a tight group of production aspects that help support some stunning atmospheres throughout. This further fuels the imagination of the audience, and makes the piece even more engaging.
This production of Great Expectations is a delight; it features some well-considered performances and production elements that work in tandem with the audience’s imagination, and breathes new life into a classic, essential tale.
Great Expectations is playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 2 April. For more information and tickets, visit the West Yorkshire Playhouse website. Photo: Idil Sukan