Great Expectations, Vaudeville Theatre, London
Thursday 07 February 2013
There have many screen and television adaptations of Dickens's great novel, the latest opening just a couple of months ago.
But it's a surprising fact that, until now, no stage version has ever appeared in the West End. Given that most people are conversant with the plot and the main characters, you look to a theatrical reworking to offer a strikingly unfamiliar angle on the material and to throw it into fresh relief.
You can't accuse adaptor Jo Clifford nor director Graham McLaren of shirking in that department – though you might want to question the results.
The concept (which is credited to McLaren) is that a greying older Pip returns to Satis House, the home of Miss Havisham, which, like a crime scene, seems to have been preserved in his mind in all its Gothic cobwebbed splendour, down to the mouldering wedding cake.
Under his pained gaze, and with his younger self sensitively portrayed by Taylor Jay-Davies, the past that haunts him swarms into this room which becomes an antique playground with characters springing onto the dining table (used as a kind of inner stage) or prising their way through gaps in the plaster or (in an authentically eerie effect) revealing in tableau the secrets of the back story through the huge looking glass on Robin Peoples's monumental and atmospheric set.
This approach allows for a dream-like fluidity that exposes some of the novel's concerns with a strong diagrammatic force. There are, for instance, many telling instantaneous switches, with colour-coded lighting, between Paula Wilcox's deeply damaged Miss Havisham and Josh Elwell's warm-hearted Joe Gargery.and this pointed oscillation brings home how the former plants in Pip a false idea of gentlemanliness while the humble blacksmith is its true embodiment.
But while it helps heighten the unnerving and distressing qualities of Grace Rowe's Estella, the concept swamps the proceedings and, under McLaren's direction, reduces too many of the characters to screeching grotesques in white-clown make-up.
Social subtlety is ruled out (the sequence where Herbert Pocket coaches Pip in deportment and the correct way to use a spoon, while reclining way above him on the mantelpiece is a particularly showy and unfunny clunker) as is the emotional nuance needed for the encounters with Joe and with Magwitch where our hero's snobbery painfully gets in the way. And the relationship between the two Pips remains stubbornly inert in this bold but crudely executed new vision of the material.
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