FringeReview UK 2018
Adapted by Nick Ormerod and Declan Donnelan of Cheek by Jowl for the RSC, it’s directed here by Shaun Hughes. As before Hughes takes charge of a set – built by David Rankin and team – as flexible as the ensemble chorus. Roy Gooderham and Stan Olden’s lighting suffuses dim winters and bright interiors. Gareth Budden’s sound is atmospheric. Costumes are by LLT Wardrobe. Till December 1st.
There’s a swirl and dissolve in this 2005 version of Great Expectations to match the fog of the Thames Marshes themselves. And it’s exciting, an ensemble piece where all characters take on Pip’s voice, distributed throughout as different stands of him shimmer like braided threads to vanish back into the texture. As Chorus they also come together to open and close with singing. Everyone owns Pip; he’s the story and storyteller.
Adapted by Nick Ormerod and Declan Donnelan of Cheek by Jowl for the RSC, it’s directed here by Shaun Hughes, returning from his scrupulously intelligent – and patient – unfolding of The Merchant of Venice that adorned last season’s close. The same aesthetic’s evident here too.
As before Hughes takes charge of a set – built by David Rankin and team – as flexible as the ensemble chorus. It’s a diamond-shaped arrangement of hearth and chairs with an orange abstract backdrop upstage centre where all around is black drape, and this with its chairs doing service for all interiors from forge to grand houses and London chambers.
There’s a curtain surprise lodged there too. Beyond, a small stage left arrangement of silver-greys, a wedding cake and other mothy things tell their sad occlusive tale, Miss Havisham sitting there when required, moving just once. There’s gusts of dry ice too.
Roy Gooderham and Stan Olden’s lighting suffuse dim winters and bright interiors. Gareth Budden’s sound is atmospheric, particularly effective during a rainstorm where a flock of umbrellas launch on stage. The wardrobe department come up – anonymously – with quality as ever.
The familiar story’s given this choric rendering. Ormerod and Donnelan remove it from Dickensian solidity to a more stripped-down myth. It’s more clearly a moral tale, despite startling bouts of realism.
Hughes brings out Pip’s isolation from everyone, yet he’s shared. Owen Daugherty’s Pip is attractively callow, moving from gawkish childhood to 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.
Dickens’ brilliance in stranding together the apparently disparate story of Pip forced to help Robert Hamilton’s 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 who’s 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. 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.
Daugherty plays off several actors possessing enormous presence. Hamilton’s Magwitch for one is brooding and snarling 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 has been humbled. Hamilton’s delicacy and capacity to hold an audience whilst relating his tale has been seen in the title role of Merchant. He does it again here in a wholly different bear-hug of a voice.
Sean O’Neill’s Joe Gargery is also one of the most consistently-voiced characters in this production. He never loses his rationale or vocal centredness: a mix of tender toughened. O’Neill’s very different rich braggart Bentley Drummle who marries Estella at one point, and the silk-taken voice of prosecuting Counsel in two trials are different entities, even after a few moments’ change of hat.
David Parton thrives as the village’s upwardly-thinking Uncle Pumblechook, and excels as kindly lawyer’s clerk (to Jaggers) John Wemmick. Parton catches Wemmick’s querulous but warmly confiding nature, his famous admonition to use ‘portable property’. Parton enjoys being Compeyson too – the man who deserted and persecuted Magwitch, jilted Miss Havisham. Compeyson has only a few walk-ons, though Parton convincingly bulks himself out in manner for it.
Rebecca Warnett’s Miss Havisham has all the vocal and physical agility this eldritch spider requires. Warnett’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.
Warnett has the dubious pleasure of enacting the most startling theatrical coup in this performance, indeed technically it’s the most exciting I’ve seen here in years and as good as anything in the West End. You’ll have to see it for yourself.
India Whitehouse’s Estella looks the part. She moves and speaks with that crabbed elegance afflicting people through the upper forcing-houses rightly called finishing schools. She avoids Estella’s standard brittleness, exuding iced hollowness looking to melt. When she and still-aching Pip meet again eleven years later, there’s shared pain and recognition.
David Rankin’s Mr. Jaggers is less lean, more physically imposing here than I’d imagined; it again works very well. He’s no lean lawyer of ice. Like Hamilton and O’Neill Rankin 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. Rankin enjoys the lighter role of Sergeant too.
Darren Heather’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 even more believable. Heather revels too in the brief brutish role of Dolge Orlick who assaults Pip’s sister then him. Finally Heather takes the fussy parish clerk Wopsle. Snobby villagers Mr and Mrs Hubble are taken by the ensemble. Pat Wright’s warm Startop – friend of Pip and another ‘pupil’ of Herbert – is another pocket vignette nicely folded.
Trish Richings as Pip’s older sister married, to Joe, known only as Mrs Joe Gargery is a strong vignette with more than a whiff of vinegar; injury gentles her condition. Andrea Lowe’s Biddy looks and moves well in her minor but emotionally crucial role. This adaptation gives her less to do in its active swirl. LLT stalwart Anna Crabtree takes the near-mute role of Jaggers’ maid Molly whose hands have been disastrously more eloquent. She finds more voice in her brief Watchman role.
The pace will have speeded up a notch by the time you see this production, with the crispness we’ve come to expect from this director. Hughes’ work with large ensembles refuses to be hurried; you feel vast tracts have been covered.
It’s an excitingly-conceived adaptation of a familiar story. Not so familiar though that there aren’t gasps of surprise and recognition on its first night, showing that some are still discovering it. Since this is posted before the second performance it’d be a pity to reveal everything. Ahead lies some astonishment.