“Rotten architecture but wonderful gargoyles” is how Orwell described Charles Dickens’ writing. In fact Great Expectations is one of Dickens’ best-plotted books, with the pace of the thriller, lending itself far more easily to a stage adaptation than the wildly acclaimed 1970s Royal Shakespeare Company production of Nicholas Nickleby.
That’s not to say this book lacks gargoyles, chief among them the escaped convict Magwitch and Miss Haversham, perfectly cast here with the wonderful Sian Phillips as the vengeful, mouldering spinster. (Rather chillingly, Phillips is now a ringer for Livia, the character she played in I, Claudius in the 1970s.)
Whenever a novel is adapted for stage or screen, the question inevitably begged is, how much is lost in the process, particularly in the case of a writer like Dickens, whose work, like Shakespeare’s, contains worlds. On the positive side this production, produced by the Cheek by Jowl artistic directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, bowls along with various members of the cast picking up the narration.
Scenes segue quickly into one another, simple props used to suggest an interior being whizzed on and off. Another feature is that all the cast remain on stage throughout, looking on like a Greek chorus. In addition, the younger and older Pip, the hero of Great Expectations, alternate places in the space of a scene, something which initially, with the whole cast milling about as well, makes for some confusion.
Still, the design by Ormerod is handsome, suggesting both the open marshes and light of Pip’s boyhood years and the brick columns of the theatre which frame the stage, the London phase in his odyssey. There are strong performances to enjoy too, not least Phillips and Brian Doherty as the honest, salt-of-the-earth blacksmith Jo Gargery, to whom Pip was apprentice. The awkward reunion scene between Jo, all affection but ill at ease with Pip’s newly-acquired gentrification, is deftly done.
At the performance I attended, the near-capacity audience as a whole seemed muted, with youngsters nearby me more than a little restless, in the first half at least. Still, whatever your expectations, this is very far from being a bleak house.
- Pete Wood