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Great Expectations

Charles Dickens, adapted by Tanika Gupta
English Touring Theatre and Watford Palace Theatre Production
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring
(2011)

Great Expectations production photo

Getting the 302 closely printed pages of Dickens Great Expectations into a two and a half hour show (not to mention the multiple changes of venue) takes some ingenuity, and Colin Richmond’s sets are nothing if not versatile and inventive. Buildings are presented from the ‘waist up’ so to speak, and diaphanous drapes create a sense of mystery or menace, and cleverly depict long intricate corridors in the Havisham mansion as well as screening scene changes and producing atmospheric moods, all aided and abetted by Lee Curran’s sympathetic lighting and Nicki Wells’ moody Indian music. The story opens in an open air crematorium where Pip is mourning the loss of his beloved parents; mysterious and mournful until, with a rush and a clatter of chains (enough to make us all jump), an escaped convict leaps out at him threatening violence.

Gupta sees a strong similarity between the poor Victorian orphan boy with aspirations to better himself and an Indian village boy of the same period, and has moved the story to Calcutta at the time of the British Raj when the caste system was very much in evidence. So much is touched on within the framework of Dickens' famous story - racism, injustice, cruelty, love, hate and a desire for revenge which eventually rebounds on itself.

So much to include in a relatively short time results in Act One being performed at a gallop with events crowding in almost on top of each other, giving little time to fully develop characters, but we do get the essence of each one in lightening sketches. Tariq Jordan plays Pip (superbly) with a restless, acrobatic boyish energy, hardly able to stand still for a moment. ‘Cared for‘ by his vindictive sister (Pooja Ghai) always ready to beat him, and her husband Joe (Tony Jayawardena) who is kind and protective and hopes that Pip will eventually take over his business as a cobbler. In a region where so many people go barefoot it seems an unfortunate trade to have chosen and Pip, sensibly, is desperate for an education to better himself, helped, so far as she is able, by Kiran Landa’s sympathetic and sensible Biddy.

He reveals his feeling of inferiority by addressing Miss Havisham politely and nervously as Memsahib when sent to play with her ward Estelle whom she is training to break the hearts of men, a revenge on all men for the one who left her at the altar, but soon an unknown benefactor provides him with a fortune and Pip becomes a “young fellow of great expectations”, making a very smooth transition from ragamuffin to gentleman, and discovering that there is no colour prejudice when it is a question of the colour of a client’s money.

Fight director Kate Waters has provided us with two - one between two convicts which is vicious and ‘to the death’ if not broken up by the ruling soldiers. The second is between Pip and playmate Herbert Pocket with a great comic performance from Giles Cooper.

Strong performances all round, particularly from Lynn Farleigh’s Miss Havisham, her vengeful plan underscored by her broken heart, and Simone James is haughty, dismissive, yet somehow appealing, as Estelle “the black beauty of Calcutta”, while Jude Akuwudike makes a terrific Magwitch, the unjustly imprisoned convict, ironically becoming Pip’s philanthropic benefactor.

After the frenetic activity of Act One, director Nikolai Foster keeps the second act much quieter and with more narrative, satisfactorily completing the story with the realisation that love and friendship are more important than money.

Placing Great Expectations in India seemed strange at first, but the parallels soon became clear and it is a very interesting perspective, although it did take a little while to become used to the accents - not Indian, but British Midlands!

Touring to Oxford and Malvern

Howard Loxton reviewed this production at Watford

Reviewer: Sheila Connor