Great Expectations – An Inventive Reworking

Great Expectations, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury

Pity the poor dramatist faced with adapting  Dickens’ Great Expectations. First, it’s long: some recent theatre versions have clocked in at well over three hours. Second, it’s a novel of infinite complexity, the work of a mature writer at the peak of his powers and exploring numerous themes. Third, we all think we know it, if nothing else through the seminal David Lean film.

Some recent adaptations have been terrible – this blog has previously dished the dirt on an appalling BBC adaptation from last Christmas – and I went to the Waterside with a sense of distinctly low expectations, awaiting some kind of hackneyed cliche of what the novel is ostensibly about.

Actually, I was completely won over by this radical reinterpretation of the novel. Sticking fairly close to the plot (far more so than the aforementioned BBC monstrosity), this production rattles through the three volumed novel in little more than two hours (including an interval) with a gripping sense of pace and some fine ensemble performances, enhanced by skilful direction from Graham McLaren and inventive movement choreographed by Marcello Magni.  Jo Clifford’s script manages to preserve some of the novel’s most memorable turns of phrase, and often captures the essence of the characters, casting many of them as grotesque, satirical types of the period.

Particularly intriguing was the use of two Pips – an older narrator, rarely intruding and the younger Pip, played by Taylor Jay-Davies, who managed to somehow grow convincingly from a small boy to a young man of stature, revealing the unfurling development of the play’s protagonist. And the relationship between Pip and Estella (Grace Rowe) was played beautifully, capturing perfectly the complexity of Pip’s desires and the tragedy behind Estella’s cold heartedness. And more than ever, I got a sense of the Dickens’ concern with child exploitation, a theme I’d often overlooked. Particularly startling was the excruciatingly comic relationship between Wopsle and Mrs Pip, with both characters seemingly taken from the absurdities of George Cruikshank’s illustrations to Dickens’ early works.

Of course, there are some quibbles. Herbert for me struck a false chord, being cast as an Pip and Magwitcharrogant, abrasive man about town – a role the novel sometimes hints at – but his relegation to being a minor character seemed to miss Dickens’ point: despite some youthful failings, Herbert is a genuine gentleman, combining polite manners and an inestimable sense of duty in a way never seen in the aristocratic Bentley Drummle. But perhaps I miss the point: this was a version – even a reimagining – of the novel, and as a dramatic device he certainly worked, adding to this distinctly satirical vision of the novel.

And don’t let that take away from the terrific sense of imagination underpinning this – everything from the magnificent, gothic set to the haunting use of sound and light throughout.

Yet again, the Waterside has brought an evening of reasonably priced, great entertainment to Aylesbury. Since we have been treated already this autumn to the RSC’s Julius Caesar and the incredibly moving and thought-provoking Blue/ Orange, let’s hope they can grow an audience for such work in Aylesbury, and see more nights like this coming soon. I, for one, eagerly await the programme for the spring!