Charles Dickens, adapted by Neil Bartlett
Sarah Brigham took over as artistic director of Derby Theatre in 2013, immediately bringing imagination and flair to the productions she was responsible for on the main stage.
For instance, in 2015 she directed Mike Kenny’s adaptation of Siobhan Dowd’s Solace of the Road, producing a “spirited, stunning play which has a message of hope as well as moments of shock and despair”. In the same year Brassed Off showed the people of Derby “that their theatre is indispensable to the city’s welfare.”
So there were great expectations about Brigham’s production of one of Charles Dickens’s most well-known works.
After looking at various adaptations, she chose Neil Bartlett’s “swift and punchy” version of Great Expectations, concentrating on a couple of interpretations which give it an unusual yet fresh interpretation.
Polly Lister’s Miss Havisham is not the enigmatic, eccentric woman usually associated with Dickens but a bitter, ranting matriarch who wants revenge on all men after being jilted by her fiancé minutes before her wedding. Her instruction to her ward Estella to “break their hearts and have no mercy” takes on a more profound, sinister feel when spoken with such venom.
Miss Havisham is not a likeable character and Lister’s measured performance means there is little compassion for her even when she relies on a wheelchair or has to use two walking sticks to support her drooping frame.
Estella is “proud, pretty and insulting” but Kate Spencer also gives her an alluring haughtiness and sense of untouchability. There is huge sympathy for Pip because there is no chance his love for her will be reciprocated.
Geoffrey Breton is a startling Pip, developing from an immature, naïve boy into a reckless, self-centred idealist and finally a mellow gentleman who recognises the people who are dearest to him.
Robert Beck is a frightening Magwitch while Bryn Holding, Michael Lambourne, Jack Quarton, Helena Rimmer and Ella Vale perform multiple roles with vitality and enthusiasm.
The action takes place on Barney George’s bare yet functional set which turns into everything from Miss Haversham’s house to the graveyard where Pip is accosted by escaped convict Abel Magwitch.
This is a full-on, pacy production with plenty of loud noises, music and stage effects to complement the assured acting.
When David Chadderton reviewed Great Expectations at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick in 2012, he remarked that the audience had to sit through a fairly humourless tale for two hours and forty minutes. I have no idea whether Barlett or Brigham have made cuts to the production but the Derby Theatre version rattled through at two hours, never allowing the audience to get bored or lose concentration.
Some of the theatricality, with actors not involved in the action watching intently and passing the occasional comment, might not be to everyone’s taste. But this is a hugely enjoyable production and one which will add to Sarah Brigham’s increasing list of major successes.
Reviewer: Steve Orme