Thursday, October 24, 2013

Great Expectations...

Great Expectations is one of Dicken's gloomiest stories, the tale of a poor orphan whose journey is not to riches but mistakes and misplaced hopes, humiliation, debt, and loss of all those he loves. Quite a challenge, then, to create an evening's entertainment from such a theme, so it's not surprising the Bristol Old Vic current production has met some reservations from audiences.
The main problem is that Neil Bartlett’s adaptation couldn’t seem to decide whether this was story-telling or theatre. Some scenes are theatrical, like the entertaining lesson in etiquette Pip receives from Herbert Pocket on arrival in London, and the unforgettable conflagration of Miss Haversham, but mostly it's left to Pip ~ taller and paler than everyone else which makes him seem lost in an Alice-in-Wonderlandesque revererie of the past ~ to relate long sections explaining plot and describing feelings.
There is much to appreciate though, like the evocation of those classic illustrations by Seymour in the monochrome costumes, and some excellent performances: Adjoah Andoh deserves her accolades for a superbly scary Miss Haversham, Martin Bassindale is a delight as Herbert Pocket, and Tom Canton an impressive Pip.  But there are other problems: the overwhelming sound design, the awkward use of entries and exits (nipping in and out of peony-pink Narnia-like wardrobe doors as the alternative to a long walk across a bleak set)  and the lack of any glamour, however gothic or perverse, to contrast with Pip’s austere childhood. And Estella seemed more like the sour little girl from The Secret Garden than an object of aspiration. This was a show with a lot of darkness and a lot of sadness and quite a lot of buckets of water. We end as we began, with adult Pip washing his hands, possibly biblically, until Estella's return activates a loud sawing sound which, if it was the file that cut Magwitch’s chain and set this bleak story in motion, was a fittingly cerebral end to a story full of fine detail and narrative but ultimately skimpy on visceral feeling.

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