Great Expectations

Sat 6th – Fri 19th August 2011

reviews

Madeleine Stottor

at 09:45 on 15th Aug 2011

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Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ is a long, convoluted, detailed novel. An attempt to reduce the story to a one-hour play is ambitious and difficult and it is inevitable that much will be lost. Before seeing this production of ‘Great Expectations’, I was sceptical that the promised new adaptation would be successful; unfortunately, those fears were well-founded.

‘Great Expectations’ focuses on Pip, a young orphan whose life is transformed by a mysterious benefactor and he is offered ‘great expectations’. Throughout the tale he is in love with Estella, the ward of creepy, deserted Miss Havisham. It is a story of ‘romance, scandal, and suspense’ but in this abridgement, all three of these are totally diminished. Because huge chunks of the novel are omitted, the story here fails to achieve any real coherency, and scenes feel disjointed. Necessarily, multiple characters are left out altogether, like Joe Gargery, Biddy, Wemmick, and Miss Skiffins, to name just a few. Condensing the novel in such a way makes the characterisation of those characters which do remain more difficult too. Moj Taylor (Pip) and Gareth Ellis (Magwitch & Herbert) are the only actors who manage successfully to engage the audience, creating convincing, interesting characters. Estella is a cold, cruel girl, but in the novel not entirely unemotional. Here, Charissa Shearer plays her almost robotically, with awkward movements and an emotional blankness which makes her speeches stilted.

Shearer, as well as starring in this production, is responsible for the adaptation as a whole. Using as a script whole sections of the novel almost verbatim is, I think, a wise decision, but the clarity gained from this is undermined by the production’s occasional attempts towards modernity. If you have characters on stage speaking with the words of Dickensian England, and they are interrupted by Jaggers on her mobile phone talking about yachts and chihuahuas, it feels incongruous. The technique of having actors sitting in the audience before entering their scenes (for example, Estella at the very beginning) works well, and serves really to involve those watching, as when Shearer’s Estella gives flowers to audience members.

This production of ‘Great Expectations’ is by no means a failure. Taylor and Ellis give excellent performances, and considering the constraints imposed on the company it might have been much worse. The Princes Street Mall is not an ideal location, and condensing a novel of ‘Great Expectations’’ size is hard. But this production feels confused, as though unsure as to whether it is modern, or faithful, and ultimately, like Estella, it seems as though it has no heart.

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Edie Livesey

at 10:31 on 15th Aug 2011

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What a fantastic idea to put on Great Expectations in a shopping centre! The theatre, which seemed to be a disused shop, was packed with people who’d been drawn in from the mall – an excellent diversion. Unsurprisingly, with a running time of slightly less than an hour, the recent Goldsmith University graduates were unable to do full justice to Dickens’ original. I hope however that at least one of the gang of teenage girls on the front row was inspired to read what is quite possibly the greatest novel in the English language.

Writer Charissa Shearer’s achievement in condensing the novel is even more impressive given that the pace of the production was fairly slow. The play focuses on the episodes relating to Estella (Charissa Shearer) and Miss Havisham (Isaura Barbe-Brown). That most of the play was set in Miss Havisham’s house meant that her memory seemed to haunt even the London scenes. However, the actors could have sped up a bit and fitted in a couple more episodes. Gulamani could have used a few more scenes to explain why Pip (Moj Taylor) changed his feelings for Estella before their final meeting. ‘To me, parting is a painful thing,’ Taylor told us with surprising bitterness. It was not clear why his pain had made him bitter, where suffering had ‘bent [Estella] into a better shape.’

It was a shame to lose the ending’s ambiguity, but it was otherwise well done. Shearer’s performance was awkward to the point of being robotic throughout. Her strange enunciation of the lines effectively portrayed her coldness, but it was difficult to imagine Pip falling so readily for someone so weird. Her performance improved enormously towards the end, since awkwardness became more called for. She also put in a strong performance in her argument with Barbe-Brown.

The weirdest aspect of the script was the presence of the modern day lawyer (Julia Wookey). Wookey put in a good effort, but there was no indication prior to her entrance talking on her phone that this adaptation was supposed to be modernized.

The most convincing performance came from Gareth Ellis, whose dual role as Magwitch and Herbert gave us a pretty big hint as to the source of Pip’s great expectations. He was suitably different in his two roles.

The production made good use of the space provided. I liked the actors’ entrance from the audience, particularly Wookey’s – for a few moments she really seemed to be a proper audience member. The sound effects were perhaps a little loud, particularly for those sat in the back row.

Overall, this was an interesting project that I hope to see repeated. Ultimately, Shearer chooses the most depressing ending possible from her source material – that there is no point in becoming better, because it will only be too late – but the play’s Now Voyager-esque menace is a bold interpretation. Fifty minutes well spent.

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