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Great Expectations

Charles Dickens, adapted by John Clifford
Northern Stage in association with the Gala Theatre
Gala Theatre, Durham
(2005)

Production photo

Adapting a novel for the stage is a difficult business, especially a nineteenth century novel which covers a considerable period of time like Great Expectations. John Clifford has done it twice: three times if you count the Northern Stage version which is a combination of the first two versions, worked out by Clifford and director/designer Neil Murray. The main difficulty is length: trying to condense Pip's life into two hours (approximately the length, minus interval, of this production). Much has to be omitted, just sketched in or narrated. This version does all three, and adds some film for good measure.

The story is told by Pip, played by Matt Blair, with his younger self played by Peter Peverely. In the first half we see both on stage together, with the older following the younger and commenting, while in the second we see only the older, as it deals with his life in London. Murray makes considerable use of physical theatre techniques, drawing on his considerable experience of experimental theatre and the company's interest in European theatre. Indeed, the whole production has a very European feel about it.

Murray's design is interesting: both set and costumes are in shades of light grey or white, except for the older Pip's coat, which is black, and almost the only colour is provided (at suitable points) by Malcolm Rippeth's lighting. I say "almost", for the older Estella appears towards the end in a grey-green dress - a reflection, perhaps, of her attempts to throw off Miss Haversham's conditioning?

There are no deep shadows: the stage is evenly lit in very cold light with, when appropriate, warm spots and, towards the end when the scene shifts back to the Haversham house, some green accents. The overall effect of the design is two-fold and almost paradoxical: it serves both to illustrate the grimness of Pip's life - for even when he becomes a "gentleman" he does not achieve happiness - whilst distancing the audience from the play, preventing us from becoming too involved with the individual and focusing our attention on the wider picture of the world in which he lives and which formed him. Again we see the European influence at work: this is closer to Brecht than to Shakespeare.

The performances from the eleven strong cast, five of whom are new to the Northern Stage ensemble, are excellent, and it would not only be wrong but impossible to single out any individual. It is a true ensemble piece.

It is very different to all the film or TV and most of the usual stage adaptations of Dickens and takes a new and unsettling look at a familiar story.

The production runs at the Gala until Saturday 21st January, and then goes on to the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield (Wed 25th - Sat 28th January); Quays Theatre, The Lowry, Salford (Tues 31st - Sat 4th February); Gateway Theatre, Chester (Wed 8th - Sat 11th February); Gardner Arts Centre, Brighton (Thu 23rd - Sat 25th February); Greenwich Theatre, London (Tue 28th February - Sat 5th March); Theatre Royal, Winchester (Tue 14th - Sat 18th March): Corn Exchange, Newbury (Wed 29th March - Sat 1st April) and the Lighthouse Arts Centre, Poole (Tues 11th - Sat 15th April)

Wayne Miller reviewed this production at the Journal Tyne Theatre, Newcastle, and, towards the end of the tour, it was reviewed by Kevin Catchpole at the Theatre Royal, Winchester.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan