Great Expectations is a spectacular affair. There’s an original score, an onstage fire, and the set is absolutely stunning. This is a Tim Burton-esque take; black lipstick, white faces, stripy stockings and circus manners, with characters appearing from nooks and crannies prancing all over the furniture.
The story of course follows Pip’s journey through life; his simple beginning with Mr Joe (captured excellently by Josh Elwell), his introduction to Miss Havisham and Estella, his move to London and the deterioration of the gentleman’s life that was handed to him. The characters are plentiful, with gothic dresses, top hats to match and mouthfuls of cockney accents.
The play is set in Miss Havisham’s cobwebbed dining room for its entirety; understandable, as set-changes would be cacophonic otherwise, but this makes it very hard to follow if you aren’t familiar with the book. While those who are can imagine between the lines, those who aren’t are left bewildered. Indeed, each story is rushed from one to the other, so that wonderful moments that are memorable in the novel (such as Pip’s encounter with Magwitch in the graveyard) are turned into one-minute moments of nothing. The production has a very rushed feel and was slightly incoherent; none of the scenes or character relations were developed, rather, the audience was just supposed to assume that Pip had fallen in love with Estella and that Joe and Pip were “ever the best of friends”.
It is, naturally, incredibly difficult to condense a book of 600 pages into a two hour play. The playwright Jo Clifford herself notes in the programme: “there was just too much – too much story, too many characters, too many subplots, too many themes”. These points are arguably what make Dickens so enjoyable, but even if we were to remove the play from comparison to the book, it still doesn’t stand on its own two feet. Clifford goes on to say that she “couldn’t include all kinds of things that seemed to hold the story together”, and this is quite evident on watching the show.
So: impressive lights and set and effects, and another brave attempt at transcribing Dickens to the stage, but to be honest we were left unconvinced.
By Tamara Vos
Great Expectations is at the Vaudeville Theatre, Strand, until 1 June 2013. Tickets £25-£75.