Touring – reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
Putting great literary masterpieces onstage is an erratic business. Within the same week we see the artistic director of the National Theatre buggering up Macbeth – despite a stellar cast and centuries of interpretation to draw on – while elsewhere in our unpredictable theatrical jungle a shoestring company tours a respectfully inventive, pretty much perfect version of something which far harder to stage: Dickens’ Great Expectations with its knotty, preposterous interwoven plots.
But Tilted Wig, co-producing with Malvern Theatres, have done just that. Ken Bentley’s adaptation (relevantly, he is a radio drama veteran) makes unfussed use of Dickens’ narration, enabling him to include some of the author’s sarcastic asides on matters such as lawyers. It is picked up by different cast members as the scenes flow naturally into one another: some have to achieve instant changes from deep-involved character and accent to calm RP narration. Which is particularly striking in that it never actually strikes you at all – the story just goes on.
James Turner’s set is perfect: an iron-framed box on two levels, both refuge and cage, evoking just enough Victoriana. This elegant device (with Ollie King overhead on the concertina and some really classy sound and light design) contains with panache the set-piece moments – from the shock on the bleak marshes to the smithy, the filmy-draped world of mad Miss Havisham, with a dead rat in her jewel-box, the storm, the fire and the desperate moments by the steamer on the dark Thames tideway. Lantern-light, a trap and rapid-folding doors do it all.
So easy is it to relax into the story, and so neat and credible are the characters (nine actors for the 27 characters plus ensemble), that it is surprisingly easy to pick up modern echoes : Estella (Isla Carter) after all is a trafficked child, stolen from the underclass by Jaggers and deliberately radicalised by Miss Havisham in her personal jihad against men.
The theme of class barriers is more obvious, Sean Aydon beautifully carrying Pip’s yearning to be an educated gentleman, the overwhelming of his decent nature by teenage cockiness, and his final taming to gentle regret at the sourness of his elevation. The heartbreaking division between him and Joe Gargery strikes home when that decent blacksmith gently but firmly refuses to dine with him in London because it wouldn’t be fitting. Actually, I have long regarded Joe Gargery as one of the most beautiful characters in fiction, and the performance by curly-haired, open-faced Edward Ferrow had me in tears several times. Actually, blast him, he rather set me off when he was Wemmick as well. Oh, and so did Daniel Goode’s Magwitch.
And I haven’t even mentioned the big-name star, the Olivier name: Nicola McAuliffe is Miss Havisham. Wow. A tower of lacy off-white netting, a vulturous, wearily ironic frilly tragedienne, she towers over Pip and Estella like a puppetteer. Her final emotional meltdown and immolation could bring Dickens himself applauding from the other side. Only my beloved Joe Gargery stands up to her with dignity: I nearly cheered.
So terrific. And while the fifth star or mouse is often supposed by tradition to belong only to life-changing innovation, in awarding it now I must make it clear that for me the fifth one is often more fitly represented by a heart. I loved the production. A thrill to see it in Bury’s Georgian theatre, but it will be a delight to Dickensians everywhere, and a means of conversion to others. Bravo.