”Great Expectations” review – Eddie Izzard gives her take on Miss Havisham

Eddie Izzard stars in her solo performance of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, directed by Selina Cadell, at the Greenwich House Theater
Eddie Izzard stars in her solo performance of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, directed by Selina Cadell, at the Greenwich House Theater
© Carol Rosegg

One of Charles Dickens’s most memorable characters is Miss Havisham, a 50-something woman who spends her life in a decaying mansion, wearing the same bridal dress that she wore when she was jilted by her fiancé decades before. She lives there with her adopted daughter, Estella, who was raised to break the heart of every man she meets — Miss Havisham’s vicarious vengeance on the male sex.

Dickens’s novel Great Expectations is crammed with other marvellous characters that grabbed the attention of actor and comedian Eddie Izzard, who decided to make an audiobook version of the novel, and then hone it into a solo play with her brother Mark. Now performing it at the Greenwich House Theater in New York under the fine-tuned direction of Selina Cadell, with additional movement direction by Didi Hopkins, Izzard is delivering one of the must-see performances of the season.

Solo shows like this are notoriously demanding on actors, but that doesn’t stop them from coming to the stage, especially at this time of year. Jefferson Mays is currently performing his spooky one-person version of another Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, on Broadway, and John Kevin Jones is also bringing Scrooge to life in his annual solo show downtown at the Merchant’s House.

Unlike A Christmas Carol though, Great Expectations doesn’t exactly scream the holidays. An English country boy named Pip, raised by a tyrannical sister and her gentle husband, chances upon a convict one day and shows him some kindness. Soon after, his prospects take a turn for the better when the wealthy Miss Havisham employs his services as a playmate for Estella, with whom Pip falls instantly in love even as she berates him. Pip then receives mysterious news that he is to be the beneficiary of a sizable fortune and be brought up as a gentleman in London. But who is his benefactor? And when he is a gentleman, will he be able to win the affection of Estella despite her cold heart?

It’s a cracking good story full of twists, turns, and unexpected coincidences. Mark Izzard did a solid job nipping and tucking the intricate tale down to a neat two hours (even though the last 15 minutes still feel a bit shaggy). You could perform the play anytime of year, but I would argue that it fits snugly into the holiday season with its themes of kindness and redemption (a Christmas dinner episode, in fact, occurs early on). There’s also the spectral atmosphere created by scenic designer Tom Piper — red velvet drapes and torn curtains all around the theater suggest Miss Havisham’s time-battered heart and ruined home — along with haunting lighting created by Tyler Elich and moody music by Eliza Thompson. Good Christmas stories often dabble in such otherworldliness.

But it’s Izzard’s performance that makes this show a holiday gift. Stepping onstage in a black hip-hugging knee-length coat and white ruffled shirt (costumes by Piper and Libby da Costa), punked-out hair à la Billy Idol, tickle-your-ass-with-a-feather boots, and long, impeccably manicured fingernails polished a flaming red, Izzard wows us before her first “Pip.” To call Izzard’s ensemble “period appropriate” is a stretch to say the least, but it is Izzard appropriate, and that’s all that matters as she proceeds to wow us even further by creating the people of Pip’s world using only gestures, changes of voice, and her two expressive (heavily) mascaraed eyes.

How’s it possible to keep all those characters straight for the audience? Clear elocution, precise gestures, and strategic dramatic pauses — that’s how. With a crown-like flourish of fingers behind the head, Izzard becomes Miss Havisham; with a slight stoop and pirate-like accent, she becomes Magwitch the convict; then with a slow turn and a gruff grumble, she’s Mr. Jaggers the lawyer. In a nutshell, Izzard gives a master class in creating “special effects” using nothing but her own body and voice. When Magwitch hungrily gobbles down the “wittels” that Pip has brought from his sister’s cupboard, I could have sworn I saw a piece of pork pie going into Magwitch’s mouth. Only a stage magician can accomplish that kind of illusion.

But is this show funny? It sure is. Izzard, known for her stand-up routines and specials, relentlessly teases out the script’s humor and gets the audience laughing in the most unexpected places. Just watch her eyes widen with Norma Desmond intensity as she speaks to Pip, and then try to repress your delight. Miss Havisham never looked so good.