In Neil Bartlett’s staging of Great Expectations at Bristol Old Vic, you hear the story more than watch it. The chains of the convict, the hammering of the blacksmith, the unhinged humming of Miss Havisham are as much a part of the characters as the costume, expression and lines.
Bartlett, who here stages his own adaptation of Charles Dickens’s book, puts Pip front and centre, and leaves him there. Like the ancient mariner, this grown-up Pip is compelled to tell his story, and Tom Canton, on stage the whole evening, does a sterling job of keeping us gripped. The production doesn’t let up – from the unforgettable encounter with Magwitch on the marshes (a feral Timothy Walker) to the reluctantly sentimental ending.
But it is Miss Havisham who steals the show, as she does the book. Adjoa Andoh in the role starts out as Phiz cartoon and ends as reptile. She speaks as though she’s forgotten how and moves as if air isn’t her native element. Her protégée, Estella, is a stony Laura Rees, who draws the audience – and Pip – in only to shock with a scratch to the face or a cruel remark.
Great Expectations may be dominated by these two women, but Dickens created some of his most vivid supporting characters to people Pip’s story – and the Bristol Old Vic cast do a splendidly funny job of gurning their way through the likes of Mrs Joe (Lindsay Dukes), Mr Jaggers (Tim Potter), Mr Pumblechook (Miltos Yerolemou), Herbert Pocket (Martin Bassindale) and Bentley Drummle (William Oxborrow).
The brilliant sound design, meanwhile, is by Timothy X Atack with lighting by Rick Fisher. Bartlett’s staging is sparse – a few tables, chairs and moveable wooden doors. So it is up to Atack and Fisher to conjure a sense of place and recreate Pip’s memories. Miss Havisham’s dramatic death scene, for example, is chillingly created through inspired use of sound, lighting and a judiciously placed wind machine.
Strangely, in a production with sound at its core, the only aspect that jarred was the occasional use of a couple of microphones at the front of the stage, which tended to slow the action down and hamper the cast.
But this couldn’t detract from a fabulous evening in the company of two great storytellers – Dickens and Bartlett. I walked home with the damp air of the marshes in my nostrils and the clanking of the convict’s chains ringing in my ears.