Date: 27th September 2013
Venue: Bristol Old Vic
Director: Neil Bartlett
Starring: Tom Canton, Tim Potter, Adjoa Andoh, Laura Rees, Timothy Walker
Stylised, resourceful but at times hammy, this loyal adaptation of a Dickens classic just about meets expectations
Sometimes the most minimalist of settings can house drama of the most epic proportions, with a band of multi-tasking actors doubling as stage hands to ferry about the various props and furniture. This is the case with Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Great Expectations, in which everyone does their bit- with an almost amateur effect.
Tom Canton is Pip, a once- gentleman telling his story of rags to riches, and back again (almost). Orphaned and living with his abusive, abrasive sister (Lindsay Dukes) and her long-suffering husband Joe Gargery (Tim Potter). In this opening act we learn of Pip’s childhood, affected by his dysfunctional family and a chance encounter in the marshes with an escaped convict, Magwitch (played with convincing hunger by Timothy Walker). The production stays true to the original form, with Pip sneaking in for the brandy, the pork pie and of course, the metal file. Magwitch consumes the pie with a visceral hunger that effectively demonstrates his desperation.
It’s here that we begin to get a sense of the stylised, chop and change nature of the production: the cast pick up and move furniture for various uses, which simultaneously encourages us to suspend disbelief but harks back to Brechtian- style drama at school, where a black wooden box can represent just about anything. The table is used as dining room furniture, a blacksmith’s workbench, and to wheel Magwitch off into the mists of the upstage/offstage area.
Curiously, the cast make use of two microphones placed downstage at random intervals throughout the play- perhaps to emphasise dramatic dialogue. Occasionally this is used MC style, to narrate a passing of time or new scene. The mics aren’t necessary, and this becomes clear as actors with perfect projection are forced to step away from the action of the scene to say a few dramatic words into it.
When Pip receives his mysterious invitation to Satis House, an air of anticipation seems to sweep the auditorium: his fortune is about to change on meeting the famous Havisham character. Miss Havisham, played by Adjoa Andoh, is as vulnerable and powerful as always, portrayed with just enough venom to truly believe in her suffering.
Overall, for an opening night performance there are a few ‘off’ moments as well as the usual raw energy and adrenaline. It’s a whirlwind ride as the actors chop and change the scenery, drifting from scene to scene tirelessly. It’s engaging despite the amateurish effects, and nice to see this classic piece of literature revived for the stage.