Great Expectations, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Expectations fulfilled this time
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The Independent Culture

With shows ranging from the Alan Bennett Wind in the Willows to His Dark Materials, it would be fair to say that the National Theatre has, of late, had the edge on the Royal Shakespeare Company in terms of "seasonal" main-stage fare. It's perhaps no coincidence that the most inventive Christmas piece in Stratford in the past few years - Laurence Boswell's version of Beauty and the Beast - was the development of a project that began at the Young Vic, another venue with a far more creative track record in this line of business. The RSC has otherwise fielded such bummers as a disastrous, over-designed Alice and the Ian Judge Christmas Carol which seemed to tip several tons of icing sugar over Dickens's tale. There was a complacent, middlebrow tweeness, too, about their lauded versions of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Secret Garden.

So it's good to report that, this year, the company draws level with the National - and that both, in their choice of material, have declared that man cannot live by mince pies alone. In the Olivier, there's a captivating adaptation of Jamila Gavin's quasi-Dickensian novel Coram Boy. This may end in a Christmas rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus, but, before that, there's a gripping story that takes in such un-festive topics as systematic infanticide and child-sex trafficking.

On the main stage at Stratford there's a wonderfully involving and eloquent adaptation of Great Expectations by the Cheek By Jowl boys, the director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod - and this haunting narrative contains, mercifully, only one concession to the season: the singularly uncomfortable Christmas dinner where Pip's theft of the food, brandy and file for the convict, Magwitch, begins to come to light. You emerge though, far more spiritually fortified for the days ahead than you do when departing, bloated with the condensed milk of human kindness, from Scrooge.

The production is a fine example of fast, fluent ensemble story-telling. The cast double as a permanent chorus who, delivering lines in turn, take collective responsibility for the first-person narration, which sounds paradoxical but plays with great ease and naturalness.

The piece is performed in front of a vast cyclorama - which lours with beautiful grey-and-yellow lighting to suggest the forbidding skies over the Kentish marsh country where the young Pip (a moving Harry Davies) has his fateful meeting with the escaped prisoner. Deeply moving emotional effects are produced simply. When the older Pip (a nicely shaded, winning performance by Samuel Roukin) leaves to take up his expectations in London, the chorus slowly, dreamily back away from him, emphasising the lonely severance from his roots that here has him briefly in tears.

Great Expectations is a story in which false ideas of what it is to be a gentleman are painfully stripped away. With his lovely open face and sweet-natured manner, Brian Doherty gives a warm, funny performance as Joe Gargery, the blacksmith who, in his unassuming kindness, is a truer exemplar of gentlemanliness than the toffs to whose status Pip aspires. If I found Siân Phillips's Miss Havisham a shade too "busy" at first, I was won over completely by the power with which she suggested the old woman's panicking devastation when she finally realises the consequence of having reared Estella (an unnerving Neve McIntosh) as the heartless instrument of her revenge on men.

Not everything works. The horribly strained and gradually deepening relationship between Pip and the returned Magwitch isn't as gut-wrenching here as, say, in the David Lean movie. Miss H's death by fire in a frenzied flicker of flame-coloured ribbon looks, suddenly and distancingly, a bit Chinese in style. The overall impact, though, is tremendous, and the final image of Pip and Estella reaching out to each other, but not yet bridging the gulf between them, lends the happy ending a sober poignancy.

To 4 February (0870 609 1110)