Review: Great Expectations, Richmond Theatre

April 6, 2011

Writer: Charles Dickens

Adapted by: Tanika Gupta

Director: Nikolai Foster

Tariq Jordan and Simone James as Pip and Estella

Tariq Jordan and Simone James as Pip and Estella

I was very eager to see Great Expectations after speaking to its director, Nikolai Foster, as he started on the project last year. As a great fan of the classic Dickens novel, I knew the writers were working with a wonderful story. The only problem, as Foster mentioned in our interview, would be condensing its epic 59 chapters, spanning protagonist Pip’s childhood and adult life, into something suitable for the stage. Playwright Tanika Gupta (White Boy) was commissioned to adapt it, and transferred the story to the English Raj, using the backdrop of colonial India for the timeless tale of love, fate and class divides. Obviously this applied the layer of race and even caste to the already complex plot, and the English Touring Theatre company had the hefty task of making it all clear and captivating for its audience.

The plot was faithful to the book with a few exceptions; a young village boy, Pip, comes into contact with the world of the rich and privileged when he is invited to play at the ghoulish Miss Havisham’s manor house. Falling in love with her haughty and cold ward, Estella, Pip struggles between loyalty to his humble working family (especially father figure Joe Gargery), and the allure of becoming an educated gentleman. When a mystery benefactor offers to set him up with this life of leisure, he moves to the city, but struggles with his transformation when that benefactor’s identity is revealed.

The production had a lot of energy, with fast-moving scenes and dialogue that seemed on occasion to throw away a few of the best lines. One highlight was the fairly minimal set, with a bold red gauze and hints of sizzling sunset in the background, as well as decrepit-looking shutters to indicate Miss Havisham’s house. Another show stealer was the choreography, with excellently crafted scenes from Pip’s small-boy antics (played by the adult Tariq Jordan) to the convicts coming in from the stalls fighting and growling. The best scenes were between Pip and Herbert Pocket (Giles Cooper) – both their fight as small boys and their bachelor life together in Calcutta were charmingly acted and directed.

Jordan coped well with being onstage almost the entire time, but for me, the use of he and Simone James as both the child and adult Pip and Estella didn’t quite work. Their portrayal of youth could be simplistic (fidgeting and sticking out tongues) and my companion and I were somewhat baffled by the use of a mournful-looking small boy and elder woman on the front of the programme, neither of whom featured in the play itself.

Like the programme, unfortunately, this adaptation just did not seem adequately thought through. The Indian setting, while interesting, did not add any real depth or perspective to the plot, instead half-heartedly changing matters or confusing them. We saw Mrs Joe Gargery’s (Pooja Ghai) injury in Act 1, but this was never followed up or referred to after. Similarly, the convict Magwitch was African in this version (strongly performed by Jude Akuwudike), but there seemed to be no clear reason for this decision. It also linked him early on to Estella, the only other black character, dismantling some of the mystery at once. Tony Jayarwadena as Joe Gargery was full of heart and genuinely comic, but there was simply not enough time to feel the vital bond between him and Pip.

Overall this was a gutsy performance which kept the audience’s attention, but there were too many flaws in the change of setting and delivery of narrative to ignore. The Gargery family had northern accents, further confusing the situation, and Jordan’s portrayal of Pip as a slightly stiff gentleman in Act 2 seemed to squeeze some of the honesty out of the dialogue. I sensed that the material was hard to convey, narrative crammed in as it was, so the actors deserve a lot of credit for keeping the pace and the energy high. There was a notable absence of live music, unless you count the cacophony of ringtones we were treated to by the Richmond Theatre audience, but the recorded music between scenes was certainly atmospheric. I really wanted this brave adaptation to work, but it just didn’t quite pull it off.

Runs until 9th April

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