Great Expectations, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

Knots, plots and the deathly grip of snobbery
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The Independent Culture

Cheek By Jowl's new Dickens adaptation, co-presented by the RSC, looks like a hauntingly funereal daguerreotype. In Declan Donnellan's absorbing production, beautifully designed by Nick Ormerod, the Kent marshes of Pip's childhood are evoked by a great wall of mist: an incandescent, silvery-grey cyclorama. A crowd of characters drifts forward into a shaft of light, all in brown and black - rough felt caps mingling with smarter tailcoats and top hats, bonnets and dimly gleaming silk frocks.

Recounting Pip's orphaned rags-to-riches story - from his scary encounters with the convict Magwitch and Miss Havisham, through his snobbish social-climbing, to his eventual appreciation of true kindness - this dramatisation never gets bogged down by the novel's knotty plot. It's remarkably fluid while preserving lovely nuggets of Dickens' idiomatic dialogue and descriptive passages. Huddling around scenes, as if listening in, the ensemble create an atmosphere of intimacy and sinister snooping, and everyone shares the narrating.

Still, it is a bit flat at points. Samuel Roukin playing Pip (pictured, with Sian Phillips) can seem bland - maybe, in part, because the scenes flow by so fast. To compensate, there's imaginative playfulness with the rolling sets, including two spinning segments of a staircase and a gate with just the head and whisking tail of an ox. That fragmentariness conveys a sense of dreams and memories and, indeed, novelistic prose (focusing in on particular details rather than fleshing out everything).

The directing is peppered with little surprises and the acting, at its best, treads a fine line, avoiding excessive caricature. Roger Sloman's Magwitch is an electrifying desperado, smeared with mud as if he has risen from the grave, clutching and flipping the juvenile Pip head-over-heels - with a hint of a paternal cuddles. Brian Doherty is endearingly galumphing as the gentle giant, Gargery.

Names to watch: newcomer Robert Hastie is delightfully spry as Herbert Pocket, and Emma Lowndes is nicely exasperated as Biddy. Sian Phillips' malign Havisham looks like a death's- head in a wedding dress, while Neve McIntosh glitters darkly as her ensnaring ward, Estella.

To 4 February, 0870 609 1110