Thursday, 11 October 2012



Theatre Run: Tuesday 9 - Saturday 13 October
Performance Viewed: Tuesday 9 October (Press Night)

Reviewed by Kyle Pedley

For a story that has been re-imagined and re-interpreted an almost immeasurable number of times, the challenge always falls upon the likes of Great Expectations to bring a new or alluring take on the familiar, a hook to pull in audiences who are already so familiar with the tale, and of course those who may have not yet took the plunge into the world and works of Dickens.

As Great Expectations begins it’s national tour (ahead of a West End transfer) it is evident from the outset that the producers and designers were aware of this need to apply their own take on the source material and breathe fresh life into the tale, and in doing so have crafted an intriguingly gothic and suitably eerie theatre experience that should be equally accessible and enjoyable to both the ardent Dickens enthusiast and casual theatre-going audience.

The most immediate and noticeable achievement in the production is the uniformly excellent staging, visuals and costume design. The aesthetics of the show are given a heightened, gothic slant and, married with some excellent applied use of sound and lighting help craft a sombre, haunting and sumptuous environ throughout. Despite there being no set or flat changes (the entire production takes place in Miss Havisham’s desolate private chambers) the clever combination of ambient soundtrack, scoring, lighting and blocking help continually evoke a believable sense of place even when the action is switching from the likes of a ramshackle blacksmiths cottage to the vice-ridden streets of London. Clearly a great deal of thought and time has gone into the transitions and geography of this fairly expansive tale, and it is one element the production captures very efficiently given the natural confines of the stage. There’s some clever and instantaneous jumping from one scene or locale to another, often with any unneeded characters on stage freezing or withdrawing into the background in the vein of gargoyles or architectural memories and overseers.

Credit must also be given Scottish playwright Jo Clifford and director/co-designer Graham McLaren, whose confident and intuitive adaptation of the tale trims it down to a lean 2 hours and lends the story a great sense of pace and vitality. Great Expectations is one of Dicken’s most celebrated achievements, but for those unfamiliar with the story it tells the story of a young blacksmiths apprentice-to-be named Pip as he rises from humble beginnings to a man of standing and repute, all with the intent of winning the heart of the daughter of a disturbed and disillusioned aristocrat who has become an unhinged recluse; locked away in her home since being abandoned at the altar when she herself was young. It remains, even over 150 years after its first publication, a captivating and brilliantly told tale with layered, engaging and highly memorable characters. Some Dickens purists may take exception at the streamlining done in this latest adaptation, but the fundamental core and essence of the story remains intact, and as mentioned in doing so the creators have put together a vibrant, energetic and fluent show that trims out much of the occasional sag and deviations the original story takes (the book is generally 400 pages plus depending on version and publication).

As mentioned, the gothic theming pervades throughout, from cobwebbed clothing on Pip’s gentleman’s jacket through to an almost macabre, circus-esque slant to some of the costumes, lighting and scoring. Not quite Tim Burton, but encroaching on that territory, and this generally helps lend a unique and characterful edge to the show. The only flaw with this very welcome and visually arresting design is it’s relative lack of consistency, with some of the characters and individuals involved being notably more heightened and exaggerated than others. Wopsle and Pocket, for instance, are gloriously elongated characters whose imaginative designs stretch through to the wonderfully theatrical and bombastic performances of the actors who portray them (James Vaughan and Nathan Guy respectively). In contrast, characters such as Joe (Steve North) and Magwitch (Chris Ellison) are far more ground and earthy both in look and manner. North and Ellison both give two of the standout performances in the production, but there is still something deliciously entertaining, if somewhat incongruent, about the more showy work done by Vaughan and Guy as well.

This jarring of visuals and exaggeration of style is most evident in the key role of Miss Havisham, played safely but effectively by Paula Wilcox (of Emmerdale, The Liver Birds etc. fame). Generally one of the most prolific and memorable characters in the tale, here she falls into a more tempered lacuna between the more naturalistic characters and the likes of Pocket, Wopsle and even Jaggers. It’s difficult to gauge whether this is a positive thing to not have her reduced to caricature or whether there is a missed opportunity to not take her further along the more inventive and gothic route so much of the rest of the production takes. Regardless, the character remains brilliantly written and Wilcox is suitably creepy, as are the relationships and interactions between herself, her adopted daughter Estella and Pip.

Grounding the production amongst all the madness and curiosity is Taylor Jay-Davies, who does a superbly naturalistic and incredibly transformative take on the central character Pip. Paul Nivison rarely leaves stage as the omniscient older Pip narrating the story on occasion, but it is Jay-Davies who owns the production from start to finish, with a winningly endearing and honest take on the character and a performance that impressively evolves both vocally and physically as the character passes through time and circumstance. It’s a great, earnest show from a young actor demonstrating an enormous amount of promise, and he is the core around which the flights of visual and directorial fancy can safely fly.

This latest version of Great Expectations is an entertaining, confident and characterful take on a masterfully crafted story that remains compelling and accessible even to this day. The production and design throw new flavours and ingredients into a familiar mix and, whilst some of the inclusions feel a little forced or inconsistent, it is still an easy recommendation even for those who may feel a little too familiar with the story. And in particular, to anyone who has yet to experience this superb and classic tale, treat yourself to a night at the theatre and a perfect introduction to one of literature’s great achievements.

(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * (3 out of 5 Stars)

GREAT EXPECTATIONS is running at the New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham from Tuesday 9 October to Saturday 13 October 2012.

CLICK HERE for more information on the shows run at the New Alexandra and to book your tickets!
Alternatively phone the Telephone Booking line on 0844 871 3011.

Press tickets for this performance of Great Expectations were provided courtesy of The New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham directly. (A)musings Media gratefully acknowledges their generous invitation.

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