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Great Expectations (tour - Bedford, The Place)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
There are times when less can be more. Dickens wrote many of his novels in instalments for a readership with the time to savour his words, the characters and the situations in which these people find themselves. The theatre, particularly in 2012, can’t afford to be so prolix. In this bicentenary year, Great Expectations has been given the lean but not mean treatment by Adrian Preater for his Hotbuckle company.

Preater, who directs, has seized some choice roles for himself – Magwitch, Pumblechook and the Aged P among them. Making a virtue out of financial necessity, the staging is simple – no props (these are mimed), butter-muslin curtains to back the acting area, a few wooden crates easily shifted or piled as the action dictates and quick-change costumes all in black and white (the latter designed by Sharon Gilham). Fiona Leaning, Emily Lockwood and Bill Davidson also all take on multiple roles. Henry Proffit plays Pip.

There is a lot of dialogue, but the action moves swiftly through the story, though some characters are inevitably just mentioned or omitted. Sound effects come from behind the actors, and range from the file with which Magwitch saws off his fetters to the clang of forge hammer on anvil, horses’ hooves to the creak of oars as Pocket and Pip row downriver. It’s effective, as is the sudden use of coloured lighting for Miss Havisham’s death and the Thames as dawn breaks.

All the performances are good. Proffit has the measure of the boy who learns the hard way that becoming a gentleman involves more than fine clothes and wine-rich dinners. Lockwood is properly cool as Estella, puppyish as Pocket and country simple as Biddy. Davidson’s Joe Gargery is the essence of honest goodness, though his Jaggers had perhaps just a little too much bonhomie to chill as this pillar of the law should.

Ice-cold could describe, in their very different stations, both Miss Havisham and Pip’s sister, Gargery’s wife. You see long-nurtured anger ooze out as present agony, all the more painful for its veneer of control, from Leaning as the former and bubble out in temper bursts from the latter. She also plays lawyer’s clerk Wemmick, a man who knows how to keep work and home in their separate places. Preater first menaces as Magwitch before showing us the man who pays his debts – all of them. He then has great fun with the grotesques.