Brighton Year-Round 2019
This atmospheric Upstairs production directed by Diane Robinson is designed by Judith Berrill, with Liz Ryder-Weldon as Musical Director – her musical arrangements of the Ivy and that Blacksmith is haunting in the ballads drifting off salt marshes. Bob Ryder’s sound design everything from the hiss of metal to the eerie marsh sounds and ominous firing of cannon. Max Apollo Videaux and Richard Michalec operate the sound. Strat Mastoris’ lighting shimmers with spent force on gloaming: it’s iridescent, twilit. It’s operated by Joe Paley, Esme Bird, Tamsin Mastoris.
Richi Blennerhassett’s costumes are spectacularly period, including not a few top-hats assisted by Lindsay Midall. In Alex Worrall’s movement everyone blends with enormous confidence throughout a milling stage, and Alex McQuillan-Wright’s choreography makes this consummate. Moog Gravett’s fight direction is like a punctuation of vacuum, swiftly filled. Set painting’s by Simon Glazier, George Walter, Peter Wood, Judith Berrill,Amand Steinmann. To December 14th.
Neil Bartlett’s fluid stripped-away 2007 adaptation of Great Expectations is different to the Ormerod and Donnelan Cheek By Jowl 2005 version, that thrives on choric muster and dissolve. What Bartlett brings purely in Dickens’ own words is Pip as storyteller, and Bartlett’s decided, Pip as ultimately isolated, except in one moment.
Newcomer Matt Ingrams’ Pip emerges to tell of his genealogy from the graveyard his family’s buried in, to match the fog of the Thames Marshes themselves. This atmospheric Upstairs production directed by Diane Robinson is designed by Judith Berrill so everything literally opens onto something else in the guise of empty doorframes save one solid door. There’s a series of doors swinging shut at right-angles too, and a gamut of empty doorframes, and even an empty table doing service once as a rowing boat.
Everything’s in gunmetal grey, black and smirched with crosses to denote a graveyard; the funerary world never quite leaves. Panels dissolving stage left and right, and backstage the glow of a bellowed forge (an arrangement of Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith cheekily makes its appearance later on) and with Bob Ryder’s sound design everything from the hiss of metal to the eerie marsh sounds, with the ominous firing of cannon to alert everyone to escaped convicts. Strat Mastoris’ lighting shimmers with spent force on gloaming: it’s iridescent, twilit.
Richi Blennerhassett’s costumes are spectacularly period, including not a few top-hats. Sumptuary and shoddy is lovingly rendered in satiny and matte black, white and a chessboard of monochromes. Liz Ryder-Weldon’s musical arrangements of the Ivy and that Blacksmith is haunting in the ballads drifting off salt-marshes. Alex Worrall’s movement is a joy: everyone blends with enormous confidence throughout a milling stage, and Alex McQuillan-Wright’s choreography is one of the things that make this a consummate production. Not a hint of awkwardness, made all the easier by a uniformly fine cast. Moog Gravett’s fight direction is like a punctuation of vacuum, swiftly filled.
The familiar story’s given a more stripped-down myth. It’s more clearly a moral tale, despite startling bouts of realism. One of Bartlett’s great strengths is invoking storytelling within the story. So Pip’s ancestry unusually emerges from graves, Miss Havisham’s too is related with unusual stillness.
Daisy Proud’s Mrs Joe, Pip’s punitive elder sister is ferociously rendered in vinegar; and succeeded by her softer Biddy the help who becomes indispensible: actors relishing contrasts in this thirteen-strong ensemble is one of the tightly calibrated requirements of this version. For the most part it’s consummate. Proud excels too as kindly lawyer’s clerk (to Jaggers) John Wemmick. Proud catches Wemmick’s querulous but warmly confiding nature, his famous admonition to use ‘portable property’ however struck out.
Ingrams’ Pip is attractively callow, moving from gawkish childhood to flop-haired youth. From a boy nurtured by a kindly brother-in-law at his forge, he’s plucked by Miss Havisham to play with Estella, the child she’s brought up to revenge herself by proxy on the whole male sex.
Ingrams perhaps over-projects his voice a tad, but he’s so completely at one with Pip – in boyish shiver and shallow sneer, veneer peeling – that you don’t notice for long. It’s an exemplary core performance.
Dickens’ brilliance in stranding together the apparently disparate story of Pip forced to help Mark Green’s glowering escaped convict Abel Magwitch, with that of Miss Havisham and lawyer Jaggers is one of his most consummate. Pip’s kindness to a wronged man on the run leads to confusion. Pip’s informed he has ‘great expectations’ of riches and concludes it must be Miss Havisham. The apparently dark, certainly forbidding figure of Jaggers reveals a more intimate connection between the protagonists than any, save Pip at the end, could countenance; and the comfort of one dying man.
Most of all it’s Pip’s transition that’s most telling: from orphan boy at the forge to a young prig ashamed of his connections, most shamefully with that of his brother-in-law Joe Gargery, a better person than any in the book alongside the young Biddy who fancies Pip (that’s cut right back with Bartlett and a late moment jars). And of course Pip’s redemption.
It was a theme Dickens had handled in Little Dorrit and would return to in his novel after Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, with several characters. Here though it’s central, combined with Pip’s hopeless passion for Estella, frozen emblem of the frozen things he pursues.
And here’s the brilliance of this version. Dan Dyers plays the opposing characters of both Gargery and Jaggers. He manages Gargery’s warmth with affecting directness and utter conviction. He never loses his rationale or vocal centredness: a mix of tender toughened.
Dryer’s Mr. Jaggers by contrast is less lean, more physically imposing here than I’d imagined; it works well though less naturally than for Gargery. Jaggers, Bartlett decides, is no lean lawyer of ice and has cast him as a foil to Gargery. Despite his forbidding mien this is a man of caged righteousness. That’s surely right. Dryer exudes presence, expressing himself not icily but with hauteur, hinting later at a man who’s done exactly what Magwitch has: tried to rescue one person. In Jaggers’ case two.
Ingrams plays off several actors possessing enormous presence. Green’s Magwitch for one broods and snarls with an animal power and vocal strength that gives way to a melting sentiment, rather than sentimentality that Pip can’t abide at least till he’s been humbled. Green’s searing capacity to hold an audience whilst relating his tale is realized here in a wholly different bear-hug of a voice. Initially too with chains.
Justine Smith’s Miss Havisham has all the vocal and physical agility this eldritch spider requires, flyaway wig and steel trap six inches below it. Smith’s voice is high-lying, sounding slightly girlish, exactly as if her development’s arrested. It’s chillingly perfect for one view on the wedding-attired ancient who shuns daylight. Havisham’s transition from poisonous deceit to begging forgiveness and meaning it, is touching in Smith’s hands.
Smith has the dubious pleasure of enacting the most startling theatrical coup in this performance, indeed technically it’s exciting not only for lighting effects but the way ensemble storytelling melts it out again.
Emma Lillie Lees’ Estella embodies the part, less waify than some feel compelled to portray her, and more the substance of her parents turned to terrible account. She moves and speaks with that crabbed drawl afflicting people through the upper forcing-houses rightly called finishing schools. Lees avoids Estella’s standard brittleness too, exuding iced hollowness looking to melt. When she and still-aching Pip meet again eleven years later, there’s shared pain and recognition.
Harry Morris’s superb as the warm, honourable, generous Herbert Pocket, who befriends Pip after Jaggers has asked him to attend to Pip’s finishing school as it were. He’s not the conventional slight figure but substantial and vigorous – and believably alert, quicker to realize Magwitch’s worth.
Morris revels too in the brief persecutory role of Compeyson; again a deliberate pairing of opposites: the man who deserted and persecuted Magwitch, jilted Miss Havisham. Compeyson has only a few walk-ons, though Morris chillingly smoothes himself out in manner for it, alluding to a scar.
Martin Ryan’s rich braggart Bentley Drummle is here a fantastically lowering brute who marries Estella at one point, and his unusual roughness – no conventionally smooth wooer with a violent streak but a near-sociopath – explains why Ryan’s given the role of Sergeant: authority briefly in check.
James Hammond thrives as the village’s upwardly-thinking Uncle Pumblechook. Finally Sam de Costobadie takes the fussy parish clerk Wopsle. Other ensemble parts are taken by Jenny Behn, Cata Lindegard (who announces the interval mordantly) and Diana Banham.
There’s some decisions Bartlett takes to ensure everything points back to Pip. Thus Biddy’s shrinking as a character the odd decision to have Havisham to make out a cheque to Pip, not Herbert Pockett, so that everyone leaves Pip to his epilogue and encounter. Bartlett’s a superb adaptor but here he loses the truth of the story a little for the sake of thematic slickness. The epilogue though is warmer in its ambiguity, with a tender shock in one gesture.
This is though a professionally-realized NVT production, consummate and brooding, here the melting of scenes into each other seem as fluid as a salt marsh, or a great story shimmering just out of reach.