Great Expectations (Richmond Theatre)

Great Expectations (Richmond Theatre, until Saturday, March 17th 2018)

A beautifully atmospheric production of Great Expectations manages to draw together many strands from Charles Dickens’ original novel without once losing sight of the core characters and their story.

This is a significant feat when the story has been filmed and staged so often. This Tilted Wig Productions in association with Malvern Theatres touring version dares to introduce more of the minor characters than we might normally expect, allowing all to develop satisfactorily, and giving the hard-working cast a meaty range of roles to get their teeth into.

James Turner’s deceptively simple set – essentially the skeleton of a metal box with ramps on two sides and a wooden backing that opens onto an eerie and ethereal otherworld – may not quite have the ability to transport the imagination from the Kent marshes to a smithy to the splendours of Satis House but it nevertheless permits actors to glide from one scene to the next and ensures a seamless transition from one setting to another.

Adaptor Ken Bentley has a wealth of experience in audio drama, and that translates here to loving attention to detail for each character and scene and an extremely well condensed and exquisitely layered plot. Some knowledge of the novel may just be necessary when so many of its memorable characters are included, some of them only briefly, but it is a real joy to see several who are often ignored making an appearance and helping the story move along. He also keeps many of the book’s original themes (such as the disparity between rich and poor, the educated and uncultured, pretension and humility) and encourages them to speak with a contemporary edge.

There are moments when it looks as though director Sophie Boyce Couzens might have been told to “make the most of the bare essentials” with so much about the production being sparse. But there is a whimsical and inventive aspect to this engaging production which suggests she embraced the challenge willingly, getting the very best from a small cast of nine who successfully portray nearly 30 characters between them.

Nichola McAuliffe plays one of Dickens’ best-known characters, Miss Havisham, not as the typical jilted and embittered spinster, but as an eccentric with a heart. Her treatment of Pip and Estella may have streaks of cruelty, yet this is a subtle study of a tragic life sculpted by regret and unfair treatment. It is another powerful stage performance from McAuliffe, a spectral yet inimitable vision in lace who seems to flicker in an out of existence yet always manipulates the action.

Séan Aydon’s Pip is very much at the heart of this bildungsroman, growing from the young orphan with simple dreams to success as a gentleman thanks to his anonymous benefactor. It is a solid and likeable performance, never afraid to show the character’s shortcomings, yet always through the eyes of a young man developing from experience.

There are some neat touches in the casting: Edward Ferrow is noteworthy as the kindly blacksmith Joe Gargery and the clerk Wemmick, both of whom serve as father figures to Pip – the scenes with Aydon in both roles are packed with emotional intensity; Daniel Goode is a wonderfully rough and ready convict Magwitch, doubling up as the snobbish Bentley Drummle; Isla Carter is the cold-hearted and beautiful Estella and the quiet maidservant Molly with a wild heart; James Dinsmore is particularly versatile with roles including the chief antagonist Compeyson, the lawyer Jaggers who links so many of the storylines, and the delightful “Aged P”, Wemmick’s father; James Camp is excellent as Pip’s decent and loyal best friend Herbert;  and Eliza Collings triumphs as the hot-tempered Mrs Joe and the warm Biddy, who is perhaps the one character who is sadly underdeveloped in this retelling.

The other performer on stage is musican and composer Ollie King; the music is a terrific addition to this production, with some lively songs, and painting background that is at times folksy and at others downright haunting. The music is as much an important part of the set as the more solid scenery.

Richard Williamson’s lighting is another star in its own right – Miss Havisham’s climactic accident is especially effectively realised – though there are some scenes in which it is so dark it can be difficult to make out what is going on.

This production of Great Expectations  has much to commend it, particularly in its thoughtful and faithful retelling of the Dickens novel and Joe Gargery’s oft-quoted exclamation “what larks!” seems to sum up its geniality and general appeal. While it may be verging on the overlong it is nonetheless a diverting and gratifying page to stage translation.

David Guest

Image: Lisa Roberts Photography

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub