It has taken so long for this production to reach the West End that the national anniversary engine has moved on from Dickens to Austen. Nonetheless, in the two hundred and one years since its author's inauspicious birth in Portsmouth, Great Expectations has lost little of its loopy, spooky power. After a successful tour, Graham McLaren's revival of Jo Clifford's 1988 stage adaptation has finally wended its way to London, too late for Dickens' bicentenary but not marred by comparison with the profusion of Pips which preceded it in 2012.
Originally conceived as a dance-based exploration of Miss Havisham's malicious eccentricity, it was a young Alan Cumming's performance as Pip which convinced Clifford to put him at the centre of the show. Accordingly, her adaptation retells Great Expectations as a ghost story enacted in the dilapidated mansion of the adult Pip's memory. The set is magnificent: splendid and rotten, wreathed in cobwebs and centred on the dining table where Miss Havisham's ancient wedding cake is slowly mouldering away. Dickens' novel meanders around a long list of locations – Kent marshes, Joe Gargery's forge, seedy London streets and the stormy river Thames – but playing the whole thing in Miss Havisham's drawing room is a smart move, focusing the disparate threads of the narrative and maintaining aesthetic consistency. The cobwebs which cling to the costumes continue this theme, as though all of the characters are under the thrall of the lonely, tragic, savage inhabitant of Satis House.
Clifford's script nails the balance between poetic eloquence and wry satire which is so characteristic of Dickens, and the potent high-camp theatricality of the characters suits the nightmarish, eerie storytelling. The dance roots of the production are still showing, too, in the evocative arrangements of characters and innovative use of the chorus. Herbert Pocket struts on the mantelpiece while he instructs Pip in the ways of gentlemen, and the lawyer Jaggers' first entrance, bringing the enigmatic news of Pip's 'great expectations,' is made by squeezing through a rotted crevice in the wall. Every movement seems to be motivated by character, every scene composed with a painterly attention to detail.
Though the overall conceit of setting the story in Pip's memory is effective, the presence of the older Pip played by Paul Nivison is not always entirely justified. The framing scenes in which he reminisces with Grace Rowe's glacial Estella feel a little redundant, and though the narration he provides at various points allow Clifford to plunder the novel for evocative descriptive phrases, it was rarely necessary for narrative clarity. Star billing should instead be reserved for Taylor Jay-Davies' Young Pip, who graduates flawlessly from the hunched and unrefined child on the Kent marshes to the upstart dandy in Victorian London with precision as well as heart. The transfer from Young Pip to adult Pip somewhat clouds the character's motivations towards the end of the play, when Jay-Davies disappears from the stage and leaves Nivison to display his final reactions to the fates of Magwitch and Miss Havisham.
Nonetheless, Great Expectations is a stunning retelling of a deservedly famous tale, finding a dark and beautiful visual language which is never less than compelling.
Top price normally £50/£55 down to £29.50
Valid on performances until 30 March. Excludes Saturday evening performances.
For the first time in the West End, Great Expectations is presented as part of the international Dickens bicentenary celebrations.
Graham McLaren’s ‘outstanding’ ‘haunting’ and ‘utterly brilliant’ production brings some of the most memorable characters ever created to life. The beautiful, chilling...
Vaudeville Theatre404 The Strand
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2R 0NH
Duration: 2 hours 20 minutes
Paula Wilcox (Miss Havisham) © Alastair Muir
Grace Rowe (Estella), Paula Wilcox (Miss Havisham), Taylor Jay Davies (Young Pip) © Alastair Muir