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Great Expectations

Charles Dickens, adapted by Tanika Gupta
Watford Palace & English Touring Theatre
Watford Palace Theatre and touring
(2011)

Great Expectations production photo

Dickens's novels were often put on stage even before the final chapters had been published and for more than a century and a half the theatre has seen his stories as popular dramatic fodder. Just think how many versions of Oliver Twist have there been and in the festive season there are innumerable adaptations of A Christmas Carol - and apparently at least 250 stage and screen versions of Great Expectations. I seem to have missed any recent stage ones, except for a devised piece about Miss Haversham, so I wondered how easy it would be to pack the story into an evening's theatre.

Tanika Gupta has done a remarkable job but this is not quite Dickens's original story. She has transposed it from the England of the 1840s to India from 1861-76 and makes young Pip a few years older than he is in the book, enabling him to be played be the same actor when he is grown up. Incidents have been slightly rearranged and inevitably some characters and episodes omitted but we still have more than thirty different scenes. They flow smoothly onward in Nikolai Foster's production, aided by Colin Richmond's colourful setting with its sweeping red traverse curtains moving things along corridors and swiftly on, sometimes invaded by groups of dancers or religious devotees, richly lit by Lee Curran and supported by the music of Nicki Wells with no less than Nitin Sawhney as Music Advisor. Together they establish a theatricality of which I think Dickens would have approved. There is a splendidly effective dramatic image, which marks the core and turning point of the plot, when the maturing Pip strips off his Indian clothes and dons the shirt, waistcoat and cravat of the European

How would he have reacted to the change of location? That seems entirely in the Dickens mould for, in the same way as his work reflected society's ills, Gupta has used it to comment on colonial attitudes, on the way in which the ruling raj were developing an educated Indian strata which could become their civil servants, on the aspirations of the people for their own advancement.

This tale of a boy who helps a convict out of fear, visits an eccentric old lady who has a plan to use him for her revenge on men for her jilting years ago, of his sudden accession of wealth from a mysterious benefactor and reshaping as a gentleman is full of social comment and moral lessons for those who care to see them

Dickens's novel is written in the first person which tends to put one on the side of the narrator but Gupta, and Tariq Jordan's performance allow us to see his selfishness more clearly, a clear exposition of the way that changes in station can alter our relationships even with those who love us. He is as inconsiderate of others as Lynne Farleigh's delicately desiccated but tough Miss Haversham, living among the debris of her abandoned wedding and raising Simone Jones's coldly beautiful Estella (now the child of African and Indian parents) to have a frozen heart. The two of them do eventually see how wrong they have been and I wish that Gupta had given them a longer scene to explore that discovery together.

Magwitch, the convict who so terrifies Pip at the beginning of the story, is in this telling an African sailor who got mixed up with a white crook. Jude Akuwudike gives us a man whose temper rises easily to violence but suggests a warm and generous personality that has been distorted; he is no villain.

Nor is Russell Dixon's white lawyer Jaggers, high falutin' condescendin' attitude to Pip and the sister (Pooja Ghai) and brother- in- law (Tony Jayawardena) who have brought Pip up since his parents died. Jayawardena's is a particularly warm and effective performance; he makes him by far the most likeable character on stage, closely followed by Kiran Landa's Biddy, a girl who grows up with Pip, encouraging him to develop himself and appreciate his Indian culture.

Surprisingly perhaps (for I always remember Alex Guinness in Lean's famous film version as a rather fatuous toff) Giles Cooper makes Estella's cousin Herbert Pocket a rather nice chap too, even when they first meet at Miss Haversham's and he challenges Pip to fisticuffs, and kindly and understanding as he tactfully teaches Pip western table manners. His kindness seems to licence us to see the funny side of Pip's naivety, coupled with the fact that Pip shows no embarrassment. It is the delicate balance of scenes like that one that make this production of Great Expectations work.

At Watford Palace Theatre until 12th March then Cambridge Arts Theatre 22nd - 26 March, Theatre Royal Brighton 29th March - 2nd April, Richmond Theatre 5th - 9th Apri1, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, 19th - 23rd April, Oxford Playhouse 27th - 30 April, Malvern Theatres 3rd - 7th May 2011.

Sheila Connor reviewed this production at Guildford

Reviewer: Howard Loxton