I’ve always loved Great Expectations and I’m not alone.
Charles Dickens’ novel recently featured in the nation’s top 25 favourite books in the BBC’s Big Read survey. So it’s little surprise then, that on the opening night of this new production at the Royal Exchange, the audience seem keen to revisit this Victorian classic. What a shame then that such enthusiasm and excitement for the material does not actually reach the stage.
Johanna Bryant's set is striking in its simplicity at times. But once a bed, a boat, and a noisy gate are lowered onto the stage, there’s a inescapable feeling that the pudding has been well and truly over-egged.
Jacob Murray's clumsy direction produces painfully long scenes in which the laboured portrayals of Dickens’ much-loved characters taint any rose-tinted memories of the original. And, at nearly three hours in length, it’s surprising to see this piece devoid of any humour.
The late James Maxwell's adaptation (first performed here in 1984) follows the story of Pip, a humble young boy who longs to be educated in the ways of the world. He encounters a variety of characters who change the course of his life; amongst them, the ghostly Miss Havisham (Una Stubbs). She introduces Pip to the enigmatic Estella who, because of Miss Havisham’s lessons, is unable to return his love for her.
Dressed in a bedraggled wedding dress and donning a white wig, Stubbs initially impresses as the old lady with a broken heart and both feet in the past. But as the production progresses, the stilted direction prevents the actress from conveying any real sense of emotion. Likewise, Charlotte Emmerson's Estella comes across as vapid in a monotone, almost robotic, performance that does little to persuade us her character really does want to love at all.
As the social-climbing Pip, Oliver Dinsdale gives a more assured performance, but annoyingly, whenever he comes into his own, a clanking set piece drowns out his dialogue. As if that weren’t enough, elsewhere Steve Brown’s imposing sound effects often make you jump without any real purpose.
Like Miss Havisham’s old wedding cake, this production offers little more than crumbs. This approach to Dickens’ text tastes way past its sell-by taste. Well below expectations.