Bristol Old Vic’s new adaptation uses acting supreme to drive this troubled tale of Dickens’ beloved character Pip. By Sophie Seddon.

Great Expectations Mrs Havisham

Dickens’ would not be the first author you would attempt to adapt to the stage, but surprisingly, it works. His novels are widely considered the best of Victorian literature, and he remains one of the best British novelists of all time. He takes his rightful place amongst the likes of William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, JRR Tolkien, Virginia Woolf and JK Rowling to name a few. Whilst all these writers have had immensely successful film and TV adaptations, their theatrical works remain widely untouched, with the exception of Shakespeare.

So why Dickens? Furthermore, why Great Expectations? It’s true, Oliver Twist has been successfully adapted, and works brilliantly. But of all the work, what made the Bristol Old Vic want to try this one?

Neil Bartlett, the show’s director, explains it beautifully in his programme introduction. He describes Great Expectations as having ‘the outline and mechanics for a classic mystery’. You can see how this concept drives the show as protagonist Pip’s narrative always seems to be leading toward some unanswered question, something that he’s desperate to know.

In a word, Great Expectations was absolutely stunning. There is no simpler way to put it. Pip’s harrowing narrative echoes around the stage like riddle in itself, always looming. The written words from the book is used to structure the play, letting the audience glimpse into the mind of a man who once had such great expectations, only to see them all fall to pieces in the play’s cataclysmic end.

For those who are not familiar with the classic work, Great Expectations sees orphan Pip narrate his life to the audience, starting from his youth in the country with his sister and her blacksmith husband, Joe. Out in the church graveyard, he encounters an escaped convict, who is caught shortly after forcing Pip to help him steal food. Pip is sent to play with Estella, the ward to wealthy Miss Havisham. He falls in hopelessly love with the mean Estella, who feels Pip is unworthy of her company. Continuing with his life, he trains to become a blacksmith when lawyer, Mr Jaggers, informs him that he has a benefactor who is giving him money to be a gentleman. Thinking it is Mrs Havisham, Pip lives a high life London with his friend, Herbert Pocket, and tries to win over Estella. But a surprise visitor returns to transform Pip’s world (without giving too much away)…

On set, there stands just a bare stage. You can see right to the back to where the back doors are. It is all black, naked, and dark. No other sets or backgrounds. Only a couple of blank canvases and metal table props that were wheeled onto the stage by other characters. It relies completely on the acting talent to bring it to life.

The acting is sensational, with most of the actors playing more than one role throughout the entire production. The supporting cast bring to life strong, vibrant, cynical, dark and in some respects dominant characters, particularly in the earlier stages of the show. Pip’s (Tom Canton) younger self is portrayed as a small and nervous child who doesn’t say an awful lot. Lindsay Dukes’ portrayal of Pip’s domineering sister, Mrs Joe, brings a strong female presence to the stage, directing the other male characters, and putting Pip in his place. For a time when men were the powerful ones, Mrs Joe controls her marriage to blacksmith Joe Gargery (Tim Potter). Potter’s Joe is wonderfully kind and honest, giving the audience, and Pip, a sense of hope; particularly when Mrs Joe and her allies Mr Pumblechook (a brilliantly comical Miltos Yerolemou) and Mr Wopsle (Martin Bassindale) are forcing Pip into Miss Havisham’s (Adjoa Andoh). The group’s collective voices to shout certain insults at Pip make the words hurt that little bit more, making Pip an even weaker and more vulnerable figure.

Adjoa Andoh was a fantastic Miss Havisham, particularly as she was portrayed as more aggressive here, which made the audience’s sympathy lie with Pip further. But in the latter part of the show, her mentality deteriorated and her aggression turned into a breakdown, which Andoh performed to perfection, making even the harshest of Dickens’ characters appear the most fragile of all. Her shivering body and deep husky vocal tones allowed the audience to be scared of her, despite her weakened frame, and yet feel complete pity for her at the same time. Timothy Walker’s Magwitch (the convict) was also excellent: a violent, yet loyal figure, a man of contradictions. Walker’s actions with his body showed a strong, but weakened figure; with a voice that scares you into believing he is capable of great violence. Bassindale also impressed as Herbert Pocket, Pip’s close friend in London. With his youthful exuberance, positive attitude and kind facial expressions, he was the light comic relief that the play needed, along with the wonderful Miltos Yerolemou.

But it was Tom Canton’s Pip that stole the show, as the lead character quite rightly should. His constant ability to switch between the stages of Pip’s life, from narrator to young country boy and blacksmith to wealthy gentlemen, he demonstrated great concentration. His young Pip was adorable, with a country bumpkin accent, making you want to cuddle him. Canton made his audience sympathise with Pip right to the end, when his nervous figure became uncontrollably unstable, and his good intentions failing miserably.

The acting drives this adaptation, and that is all it needs. Its characters are dark and sinister, whose intentions are never clear, which further drives Pip’s confusion into the closing act.

My only criticisms were the use of a microphone near the beginning of the production which holds no purpose whatsoever and Laura Rees’ Estella as perhaps the weak link in the phenomenal cast. She is too much of an extrovert. It works as a child, but her adult character needed to be more sinister and mentally developed.

Overall, Great Expectations is a production of excellent acting dominance, and a cast who work together on forming a dark and brutal world in which Dickens’s may once have lived. His social criticism is rife in Bartlett’s production, making it known of what it truly means to be Dickensian.

Showing at The Bristol Old Vic until November 2nd http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/greatexpectations.html