Nicola Harvey enjoys a night of classic Dickens at The Theatre Royal Bath
I have loved Great Expectations for about 30 years now. It was the first proper classic that I read unabridged and I loved the perfectly wordy narrative and the wonderful characters that Dickens creates. I also found myself moved, even as a teen, by the injustices he brings into sharp focus. Would I love it as much on stage as I had as a novel, and subsequently as excellent TV adaptations?
In a way, the answer was always going to be no. As hard as the team working on Tilted Wig’s and Malvern Theatre’s co production have clearly worked, Dickens on stage with all its intricacies of plot and character is a tough thing to pull off successfully.
At the start, the production showed promise. The box-like set hinted at the fantastical story telling for which Dickens was famous. The use of metal and wood both provided a constant reminder of Pip’s roots as a blacksmith’s apprentice, and a sense of poverty and period. The use of the ensemble as a chorus of narrators hinted at a production which would be brave and inventive with a classic tale.
However, Ken Bentley’s adaptation just required too many words to give justice to Dickens’s wonderfully rich description and story telling. Much of the narration was delivered at such speed that anyone not familiar with the story would have been lost. It’s no surprise that television adaptations of Great Expectations have run to six hours or more. Even two hours and forty five minutes just didn’t give enough time for a satisfying retelling.
Although a certain level of dingy darkness was needed for the marshes and Victorian London, the lighting became so dim that I had, at times, to strain to be able to see the actors. The cramped and dominant set restricted movement of the cast and limited their ability to interact and communicate with the audience. Consequently, there was a lack of intimacy and emotional connection.
Sean Aydon as Pip was presented with the almost impossible task of portraying Pip’s growth in age, status and emotional maturity at the pace that was required. For example, the younger Pip was performed at a higher pitch and an exaggerated immaturity which made it hard to establish the essential depth of connection with Magwitch. He lacked variety of pace and shade in his delivery, but there were so many words to be said that it is hardly surprising.
Nichola McAuliffe did not disappoint as Miss Havisham and she gave one of the more authentic performance of the play. She steered away from melodrama and was believable as the deeply disturbed, flawed woman that Dickens wrote. The set was at its best here and the eerie reflections of the dusty mirrors contrasted with the complete gloom of the other scenes. Her ability to communicate the scale of her grief felt somewhat limited by the small performance space, however.
Joe was well played by Edward Ferrow and his relationship with Pip was the most believable and shaded. Sadly, I couldn’t wholeheartedly believe in Pip’s devotion to Isla Carter’s Estella. Herbert was delicately played by James Camp and I did get a sense of his loyalty to Pip and his development from puny fight opponent to dependable, intuitive ally.
Overall, I was left wanting a more satisfying experience in so many ways, but many will have been enchanted by the faithfulness of the adaptation and modern set and staging and will have overlooked its shortcomings.
Great Expectations run at the Theatre Royal Bath until 9 June. Tickets are available at www.theatreroyal.org.uk and by phoning 01225 448844