Review: Much to admire and enjoy in this interpretation

Great Expectations at the Devonshire Park Theatre
Great Expectations at the Devonshire Park Theatre

Great in many senses, including scale, scope and length: the Tilted Wig company brings Great Expectations of high quality to the Devonshire Park Theatre this week.

The production opens to a spare set and a sense of bleakness, as an onshore wind sweeps across the Kent marshes. James Turner’s design is, at first sight, a bit minimalist: a large open-sided box, set just off-centre, with scaffolding ladders to be scaled, two musicians sitting up a-top, and almost infinite flexibility as the sides and platforms are raised or let down. Atmospheric lighting and sound enhance the experience, and the whole concept works superbly.

Indeed, this Great Expectations is almost worthy of an RSC or a National Theatre staging, almost in that same fine Copperfield-and-Nickleby mould. Almost. All stage adaptations have to weave together the narrative and the dramatic, so that one does not overwhelm the other. For the epic, episodic story which Dickens has created, meandering across decades, that is a a huge challenge. Ken Bentley’s script stays doggedly faithful to the original, and it makes for a very long ride.

The first half succeeds almost wholly, with clear exposition, credible characters and a sense of atmosphere and period which beckons the audience in. Act Two is – in all senses – another story, and it is so heavy with plot and narration, as actors patiently spell out to the audience, that the pace drops and the true drama comes second.

But back to the show’s many merits. Director Sophie Boyce Couzens has created a kind of layered simplicity. With almost all actors doubling, nay quadrupling, their roles, a swift single-item costume change does the trick efficiently. The action switches locations seamlessly and some lovely physical theatre creates fiery blacksmithing, bumpy cart rides and breathless street chases. Ollie King’s wispy music, too, weaves its spell, while “live” sound effects of birdsong and cartwheels are conjured from an intriguing rack of instruments and implements.

And the acting is credible and human. Sean Aydon’s Pip and Isla Carter as Estella are beautifully counterpoised. The childish pitching of Pip’s voice and Estella’s young, coquettish body language, both nicely judged, allows them to convince as children as well as adults. In his pivotal role, Aydon finely achieves the improbable journey from rural orphan to city gentleman, as the story requires.

This novel is not full of Dickensian eccentrics, but there are comic glimpses in James Camp’s Herbert Pocket and Ed Ferrow as endearing Joe Gargery and as Wemmick. Among the serious characterisations, Daniel Goode is a Magwitch as dour as his awful life story. A terrific Eliza Collins convincingly plays half a dozen roles including a quite ferocious Mrs Joe and a salt-of-the-earth Biddy, and James Dinsmore commands as Jaggers.

And then, haunting the whole narrative, Miss Havisham. Nichola McAuliffe is consummate in one of Dickens’ great roles: torn, cruel, eccentric, enigmatic, Ms McAuliffe judges the character to perfection and you feel her presence, almost uncannily, even when not on stage. A decaying Satis House is smokily mirrored around her, and her costume has a tattered, fragile beauty which perfectly reflects Havisham’s own tragic story.

So much to admire and enjoy, then, in this production. If only Dickens wrote shorter novels...By Kevin Anderson.