Great Expectations

Charles Dickens adapted by Michael Eaton

West Yorkshire Playhouse

Quarry Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse

From 04 March 2016 to 02 April 2016

Review by Ray Brown

Many will know the rough outline or indeed the detail of Charles Dickens’s near rags-to-riches novel. Dickens is quoted in the programme: "pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day."

And there is no more famous literary first link than the unforgettable encounter of the young orphan Pip with the escaped convict Magwitch in a misty graveyard one chilled Christmas Eve. The writer could have taken Pip anywhere after that. In fact he weaves an account of intended and unintended child misuse leading to heart breaking snobbery and an ambiguous termination.

There is a perverse inevitability to the tale, which is peopled with brilliant characters, some of them stereotypes. Many carry the astonishing names that became Dickens’s trademark: Wopsle, Wemmick, Drummle, and, wait for it, Pumblechook! The present productiion allows you to sit back and enjoy this Victorian roller-coaster.

Director Lucy Bailey and writer Michael Eaton make an excellent job of converting a hefty novel into a two-and-a-half-hour stage play. According to the programme, it features fifty-one scenes. And the scenes are made to work very hard indeed. Only a couple of infelicitous segues are out of place, the great majority work beautifully.

For example, we see the transmission of young Pip (played so well by, I believe, Sullivan Martin—could have been Rhys Gannon) into older Pip (lovely playing by Daniel Boyd) as the older takes a blacksmith’s hammer from the younger.

There are many fine moments where theatrical devices are used to such good effect. I would encourage parents to take young children to see this show. Along with Mike Britton’s magnificent revolving set, the whole production will enthral young people and is likely to create a cohort of theatregoers.

It has always seemed to me that Dickens’s work is at its best when adapted. The texts can, for some taste, including mine, be tacky and overwritten. But a good adaptation cuts out the fanciful embroidery. And this is a good adaptation, well directed and well performed it creates a powerful atmosphere and achieves a true Dickensian quirkiness.

And it has a star in Mike Britton’s set. It is one of the most economical, adaptable and admirable sets I have ever seen on this stage. The conceit is that of a huge prison hulk, cast on one side. There is a magnificent organic sweep of timber, which can provide openings for exits and entries, and also for the hands of prisoners, reaching for the light.

But as it resolves we find a blacksmith’s shop, London offices, cottage, mansion, and more. The whole is very well lit (Chris Davey) and features a subtle, understated soundscape (Emma Laxton). It is a joy to see this set at work. So praise also to stage management.

In all then, a very enjoyable evening in the theatre. And again, do take the kids.