Great Expectations

Charles Dickens, adapted by Ken Bentley
Tilted Wig and Malvern Theatre
Exeter Northcott

Nichola McAuliffe as Miss Havisham, Séan Aydon as Pip and Isla Carter as Estella Credit: Lisa Roberts
James Camp (Herbert Pocket), Ollie King (musician), Séan Aydon (Pip), Isla Carter (Molly), Edward Ferrow (Startop), Daniel Goode (Bentley) Credit: Lisa Roberts
Nichola McAuliffe as Miss Havisham Credit: Lisa Roberts

There is much to enjoy in Tilted Wig and Malvern Theatre’s production of Great Expectations now coming towards the end of its tour.

Putting Dickens into a digestible format for an evening’s entertainment is always going to be a challenge. Ken Bentley’s adaptation manages to stay more faithful to the Charles Dickens original than many of the recent screen productions, keeping most of the minor characters and back stories, and does it with a cast of only six actors.

At the centre of the story is Pip, played by Séan Aydon. Aydon manages the difficult task of first appearing as a young seven-year-old, fearfully sent to visit the reclusive Miss Haversham, gradually maturing in front of us, to finally return in his 20s to challenge her with a confidence fuelled by anger and outrage.

Dickens's themes of poverty and social justice are always at the fore. In this adaptation, the emotional relationships between characters are very much brought to the centre, in particular that between Pip and Joe Gargery (played by the excellent Edward Ferrow). Despite all the changes in their fortunes, Joe always forgives and never gives up on Pip. The exchanges between the two are immensely touching.

Nichola McAuliffe plays the ghoulish Miss Haversham, dressed in her wedding dress, fraying on her body as the wedding banquet decays around her. McAuliffe is totally believable as the English language’s most famous jilted bride. While much is made of the cruel manipulation of Estella and Pip, this version also allows for the tragic realisation of her own behaviour.

As well as playing Gargery, Ferrow is Wemmick (and others), both father-like figures to Pip. Daniel Goode is great as the equally scary and sympathetically tragic Magwitch. Eliza Collings's versatility shines as Mrs Joe, Biddy and others. James Dinsmore, James Camp and Isla Carter complete the cast principally as Jaggers, Herbert Pocket and Estella respectively. Apart from Aydon and McAuliffe, the excellent, hard-working cast each play several roles, successfully slipping from one character to another with barely more than a slight change in posture, tilt of a hat or a change in voice.

With such a big story and so many different locations, James Turner’s set, a small, wooden-framed, open-sided box, adapts easily from Gagery’s blacksmith forge to Miss Haversham’s house, from Pip and Herbert’s lodgings to the Essex marshes, without disrupting the flow of the action and no need for scene changes. Almost part of the set is musician Ollie King, providing musical accompaniment from around the stage throughout the evening. Other sound effects are often provided by the cast using props or equipment partly hidden on stage.

Despite the scope of the story and the many characters that threaten to complicate the evening, director Sophie Boyce Couzens keeps the tragedy and emotional charge central to the production’s core. However, there are some clumsy moments. In order to distil the story, actors come out of character from time to time to fill in the blanks and narrate scene changes as we leap years or travel miles between acts, which rather breaks the flow.

For Dickens lovers, this is a thoroughly digestible evening with a fresh angle on the emotional relationships at the core of the story.

Reviewer: Joan Phillips