Theatre Review: Great Expectations - Vaudeville Theatre, London ✭✭✭

Great Expectations 
Photo by Alastair Muir
Vaudeville Theatre, London

Review by Emma Curry

The past year has seen a wealth of new Dickens adaptations on film and television, as the ‘Dickens 2012’ celebrations of the 200th anniversary of The Inimitable’s birth last February encouraged readers to reimagine his familiar stories in new guises. However, until now new theatrical interpretations of his work were severely lacking: aside from old favourites like the musical Oliver! or the RSC’s notorious nine-hour version of Nicholas Nickleby, there have been very few recent attempts to put Dickens’s other novels onto the stage.

I was particularly excited, then, about going to see Jo Clifford’s new version of Great Expectations, which transposes Dickens’s most famous work onto a misty, cobweb-strewn stage at the Vaudeville Theatre. The life of Phillip Pirrip or Pip, ‘the young gentleman of great expectations’, is set entirely within the ghostly surroundings of Miss Havisham’s spooky Satis House, with characters emerging from the holes in the walls and disappearing amongst the broken furniture. The setting is perfect for eerily evoking the uncertain and unsettling nature of the tale, as the older version of Pip (played by Paul Nivison) watches his younger self (Taylor Jay-Davies) enact his story again, powerless to intervene.

Chris Ellison (Magwitch) and Taylor Jay-Davies (Young Pip)
Photo by Alastair Muir
The performance takes much of its dialogue from Dickens’s original text, and there are some wonderful renderings of the major plot points; from the action-packed capture of Magwitch on the misty riverboat to Miss Havisham’s shocking, fiery demise. However, as Clifford acknowledges in the programme, it is almost impossible to construct a satisfying version of Dickens’s masterpiece in only two hours. I found the first half of the production on the marshes too slow-moving and ponderous –this section makes up less than a third of the actual novel, so why linger here? Spending this much time on Pip’s younger years also meant that the second half became a real mad rush through events to get to the finale. It was a shame as there were some wonderful individual performances, particularly from Josh Elwell as the genial blacksmith Joe Gargery and Grace Rowe as Estella, who brought a real vulnerability to her character, showing herself in some moving moments to be just as damaged by her childhood as Pip. However, in contrast, I found Paula Wilcox’s Miss Havisham rather too fragile, with none of the ‘weird delight’ Dickens identifies in her continual, ostentatious display of grief.

Overall, the production is thus slightly uneven. There are some excellent dramatic two-handers (I particularly loved Jack Ellis’s all-too-brief display of Jaggers’s softer side in his final conversation with Pip) and some great comic moments (mainly involving Joe), but many of the other supporting characters become relegated to clownish caricatures, and in the hurry of the second half, there isn’t enough time to dwell on the more poignant and thoughtful moments of the story. All in all, I think I'd recommend sticking with Dickens’s novel.

Three stars ✭✭✭



Vaudeville Theatre
404 Strand
London WC2R 0NH

Performances:        Mon, Wed, Thurs, Fri, Sat Evenings 19:30
                               Tues Evening 19:00
                               Wed, Sat Matinees 15:00

Tickets:                   From £25:00
Box Office:             0844 412 4663