There are some very fine performances in .Great Expectations and the epic sweep of Dickens’ story is well served in Nikolai Foster’s production for English Touring Theatre and the Watford Palace Theatre. I can see the logic of Tanika Gupta choosing to set her adaptation in post-Mutiny India, in order to underline the enormity of the class and money differences of the period. But personally I found the Indian and African political interpolations distracting.
Designer Colin Richmond has devised a background of fraying jalousie shutters surmounted by fanlight arches in front of which a succession of patched and faded red gauzes are drawn to indicate scene changes. There are a lot of these – 16 in the first half of the play, 15 in the second. There’s an evocative soundscape by Sebastian Frost with water providing a background as Pip journeys from one ocean’s edge to the other, both physically and spiritually.
That rite of passage comes out strongly in Tariq Jordan’s very good interpretation of Pip, not the most sympathetic of Dickens’ young-man alter egos, but Jordan lets us understand why he acts as he does. Icily collected with the face of an all-seeing but non-responsive Madonna, Simone James is similarly excellent as Estella. And Giles Cooper makes an engaging Herbert Pocket; along with Pip’s brother-in-law Joe Gargery, these two are the two most sympathetic characters in the story.
Tony Jayawardena shows us Joe’s innate goodness as well as his bumbling ineffectualness faced with people or situations he cannot comprehend. Pip’s childhood friend Biddy is given strength as well as charm by Kiran Landa and the pent-up sense of wrong which lead to Magwitch’s violent outbursts makes Jude Akuwudike’s portrait of the convict a credible one.
Miss Havisham is played by Lynn Farleigh as a waxwork carapace draped in fraying lace with her inner torment escaping only through red-rimmed eyes and a half-rusted voice. There is nothing so eerie in Russell Dixon’s Jaggers nor in Pooja Ghai's Mrs Gargary (Pip's older sister). In their different ways, they are firmly earth-rooted.
Towards the end of the play, when Pip has come to accept that life has less as well as more to offer in the way of ambition, he meets Estella again. She too is wiser as well as older. There is now a meeting of minds, a clasping of hands. But no touching of lips. Gupta has given us the ending which Dickens wanted.