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A CurtainUp London Review
Charles Dickens's great novel, which opens in the Erith Marshes with the convict Magwitch accosting the boy Pip in the graveyard, is staged at the Vaudeville prior to being relayed live in cinemas across the UK. This is a fitting play to go with Our Country's Good, now showing at the St James Theatre, which is about convicts once they have been deported to Australia. In order to speed up the play, no scene changes are allowed. Instead, for the grave yard to switch to Miss Havisham (Paula Wilcox)'s Satis House, all that is necessary is for Miss Havisham to stand up, tinkling music to sound and the chandelier lighting to come on. This doesn't help to suspend disbelief, especially not if you are towards the rear of the stalls, but as the play gets going, the cast get more involving and the audience is caught up. The initial graveyard scene takes place in a grand house dining room and taxes the audience's imagination.
To return to the forge where Young Pip (Taylor Jay-Davies) lives with his brother in law, the genial blacksmith Joe Gargery (Josh Elwell) the chandelier lights dim, Miss Havisham sits down and the stage is lit red. Exciting entrances are made through the fireplaces, from behind the mirrors in Robin Peoples' thrilling set. We hear the guns from the huge prison hulks moored on the river. Mr Wopsle makes a huge entrance with a very tall hat as he flirtatiously converses with Pip's sister, Mrs Joe Gargery (Isabelle Joss).
White faced actors play themselves in the past and Pip the Adult (Paul Nivison) helps narrate some of the background material in Dickens' copious novel. We meet Estella (Grace Rowe) the girl brought up by Miss Havisham to break men's hearts and we see her taunting the younger Pip. It is a whirlwind tour through the novel. We rapidly meet the Pocket family and sweet natured Biddy (Suzanna Robertson) after the terrible murder of Mrs Joe.
Act Two sees Pip come to London to be apprenticed in the law firm of Mr Jaggers (Jack Ellis) and for him to meet the idiosyncratic Herbert Pocket (Rhys Warrington). In these scenes, if called for, the actors will stand on the dining table for prominence. Joe comes to visit ridiculously dressed in London finery and I am asking the question why many of the male characters have cobwebby type crochet drapes on their jackets? Is this because we are looking back on the cobwebby past?
Some of Dickens' wonderful descriptions are there, if indeed this one is Dickens, “a crying woman leaking like a cheap pen.” Now the publication of Great Expectations around 1860 predated the invention of the fountain pen by 24 years so can anyone enlighten me what kind of pen Dickens was alluding to? A leaky quill pen? A leaky pen with a metal nib? The dark and ugly underbelly of Victorian England is exposed with Jaggers' meeting the woman and her baby, a scene full of poignancy although I don't remember the “Estella as Magwitch's daughter” storyline being tied up this version.
The ensemble cast work hard bring to all these characters to life in a very short space of time and with a curtailed script, they don't always succeed with anything except caricature and that is of course an accusation levelled at Dickens himself. Surely we need to feel terrified when Pip first meets Magwitch?
I cannot praise the set enough. The wedding breakfast is magnificent, draped with cobwebs. The set walls are wonderfully tall with elaborate plaster work and high windows. The superb lighting shows a break in the plaster and lathe and sunlight breaking through the hole. Sometimes the mirror will become a window and light the stage. When Magwitch once more appears in London and Pip helps him get back to the ship, the cast turn their black brollies upside down to resemble boats bobbing on the river.
For all its rapidity, I enjoyed Great Expectations but I suggest it might be an idea to have read at least a synopsis of the story before seeing the stage version.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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