One of Dickens's most fascinating and disturbing novels, Great Expectations is still regarded as a cracking tale, as was recently confirmed by its position among the top 25 books in the BBC's Big Read. It's easy to see how ripe it must have seemed for adaptation by the late James Maxwell of the Royal Exchange Theatre, where this stage version was first produced 20 years ago. Great Expectations was just one of a series of "page to stage" transformations that Maxwell created for the Royal Exchange's in-the-round space, the most successful being Pride and Prejudice, the most elaborate The Count of Monte Cristo and the most clunky Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone. As with most of those books, it must have been challenging to reduce Great Expectations to manageable stage proportions with so much mystery to unfold, so many character threads to weave and so many moral dimensions to explore.
Certainly, in the first half of the Royal Exchange's new production by Jacob Murray, more of the tale's corners and complexities could safely be pared down at no cost to the narrative. The opening is unnecessarily confusing, with flashing lighting effects, crashing thunderclaps and the immediate introduction of masked characters guaranteed to make your heart sink. (The dancing scenes, which come later, have the same effect.) But after having slowly yet surely set up the snapshots of Pip's bemusing and often bruising childhood experiences, Murray's production slips more compellingly through his painful early adulthood and his journey of self-discovery. Pieces start to fall into place as seamlessly as the setting, moving us swiftly back and forth between the dank Kent marshes, Miss Havisham's gloomy Satis House and bleak Victorian London.
That we are drawn into the narrative with Pip - the work's hero and victim - says much for Oliver Dimsdale's ability to impose his character's dreaminess, aspirations and bewilderment on to his encounters with one of Dickens's most surreal and vividly depicted line-ups of creatures. On stage for most of the evening, Dimsdale not only makes an admirable stab at ageing 30 years but is so adept at expressing his almost constant discomfort and raw emotions that we begin to share an overwhelming awareness of his uncertain status, his illusions and his tormented nature.
He is greatly helped by the support he receives from fellow cast members, including Una Stubbs as a bizarre, feathery Miss Havisham, locked up in her cold, cobwebby past. Charlotte Emmerson is Estella, and Malcolm Rennie plays the lawyer Jaggers with a wickedly comic interpretation. Jonathan Hackett is the grizzled Magwitch, although in the short context of an adaptation, his sudden reappearance as an amiable, reformed character is much too good to be true. Elsewhere, John Elmes gives a sturdy performance as the big-hearted Joe, struggling to express his goodness in small words and big actions. Attracting a round of applause for his nimble feet and useless fists, Jamie de Courcey is a sympathetic Pocket, while Jonathan Keeble is an eccentric, spidery Wemmick.
Not one but several worlds are created on the stage with deft changes - not so much a set as mere objects - complementing the fragmented nature of the adaptation. Bare though the space is, the production is not without atmosphere, dominated by brooding lighting (effective in the stormy ship scene) and a dark, creepy soundscape created by Tayo Akinbode and Steve Brown. It evokes the unfathomable marshes, the surreal world of Satis House and the "mind music" of Pip's great expectations.
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