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Review Round-up: Did Dickens adaptation exceed Expectations?

By • West End

Jo Clifford's adaptation of Dickens' Great Expectations opened this week (6 February 2013) at the Vaudeville Theatre.

Directed by Graham McLaren, the play tells the story of Pip, played by Paul Nivison. Pip looks back on his childhood, haunted by all the encounters he has made throughout his life, particularly those of his abusive sister, an escaped convict Magwitch, and the tragically haunted Miss Havisham.

With other cast members including Chris Ellison, Paula Wilcox, Grace Rowe and Jack Ellis, it runs until 1 June 2013.

Michael Coveney
WhatsonStage.com

★★★

…It’s a drastic and arresting a way of shaking up the narrative…Paul Nivison’s adult Pip, creased and grey-haired from experience, watches his life flash past him from the green, dark, recesses of the Vaudeville stage. The only problem is that the permanent presence of Pip in the spooky dilapidated hall of Miss Havisham, complete with soiled wedding cake and grimy green walls, suggests that the story is really about his hostess, which it isn’t….Taylor Jay-Davies makes a lively, eager Young Pip, while Chris Ellison is a slightly underpowered Magwitch, James Vaughan a vivid, theatrical Wopsle (and a lovely Wemmick, too) and Rhys Warrington a bright-eyed Pocket who dances along Miss Havisham’s mantelpiece like a festive fairy. The adaptation by Scottish playwright Jo Clifford (first made thirty years ago when she was a “he,” John Clifford) is a model of its kind, but it does suffer from sacrificing narrative pressure and clarity, and true Dickensian sentiment, for a different kind of potpourri “European” style.

Paul Taylor
Independent

★★

..This approach allows for a dream-like fluidity that exposes some of the novel's concerns with a strong diagrammatic force. There are, for instance, many telling instantaneous switches, with colour-coded lighting, between Paula Wilcox's deeply damaged Miss Havisham and Josh Elwell's warm-hearted Joe Gargery.and this pointed oscillation brings home how the former plants in Pip a false idea of gentlemanliness while the humble blacksmith is its true embodiment. Social subtlety is ruled out, as is the emotional nuance needed for the encounters with Joe and with Magwitch where our hero's snobbery painfully gets in the way. And the relationship between the two Pips remains stubbornly inert in this bold but crudely executed new vision of the material.

Lyn Gardner
Guardian

★★

This new version boasts neither that nor Cumming, either of which might have brought some life and energy to Graham McLaren's revival of a revised script… Nonetheless, it still feels unsatisfyingly like Dickens-lite – a headlong rush through the major chapters of the story without the emotional ballast required to give it meaning. Taylor Jay-Davies' Young Pip is oddly unsympathetic, and the memory-play element is underplayed, so we never get a dialogue between past and present, nor glimpse the emotional fatigue and endurance of the older Pip (Paul Nivison), who had so much within his grasp, and lost it. The book has been neatly filleted; the excision of some major characters doesn't feel like too much of a loss and Paula Wilcox is good value as Miss Havisham. But in the end, atmosphere tries to take the place of storytelling and emotion. As the evening goes on, this Great Expectations delivers diminishing returns.

Libby Purves
The Times

★★★★

What is so admirable about Jo Clifford’s version, after years of workshops, is that it decisively shrugs off the many screen adaptations to make something that is pure theatre. Without timidity or hesitation, under Graham McLaren’s inventive, physical, impressionistic direction, its two sharp one-hour acts honour both the playful demands of living theatre and the themes of the book… The bones of the story are all there. So is Dickens’s rage at the cruelty of the judicial system and the shallow viciousness of class. The action is all in retrospect, with a quiet greying Pip watching his past enacted by spirited grotesques under a wash of blue or red light; it is hard to be emotionally engaged, except by Josh Elwell’s affecting Joe Gargery. The child, like any child, is a puzzled onlooker amid gigantic caricatures: absurd Wopsle, violent Mrs Joe, sharp Estella (Grace Rowe)… The heart is there and the culmination thrilling: fire and fog, grief and anger and regret. And no truck with that soupy, artificial happy ending Edward Bulwer-Lytton made Dickens stick on.

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

★★

...Jo Clifford’s adaptation, the first full stage version to appear in the West End, condenses this much-loved book into just over two hours. Naturally, though still disappointingly, some of Dickens’s lovingly drawn characters are omitted; others are reduced to footnotes, and the emphasis is on melodrama. The appeal of Dickens’s story isn’t completely lost in Graham McLaren’s production. There will always be something poignant in the transformation of Pip... Yet we’re never deeply invested in his journey, and the darker effects of his changed circumstances are too briefly explored... There are decent performances from Chris Ellison as a gruff Magwitch and Paula Wilcox as a cruel yet somewhat flirtatious Miss Havisham. But the style is declamatory, the exposition clunky, and the key confrontations have little bite... Laudably, profits from the production will benefit a charity, the Dickens Legacy, which promotes causes such as literacy and prison reform. But that can’t obscure the fact that this is a plodding show.


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