It’s a mark of the difficulty of translating Dickens’ epic novel to the stage that a full-length adaptation of ‘Great Expectations’ has never been seen in the West End before.
Set entirely in bitter spinster Miss Havisham’s mouldering drawing-room, Scottish dramatist Jo Clifford’s version was originally developed with the Glasgow-based theatre company TAG in 1988, and has been seen all over the world in various guises.
This particular production also toured the UK last year before landing at the Vaudeville – but the show’s arrival in London is still a landmark in the stage history of Dickens adaptations.
It’s a shame, then, that it proves so disappointing. Director Graham McLaren, an associate director for the National Theatre of Scotland, has apparently chosen to anchor the production in the theatrical style of Dickens’ own time.
At least, that’s the only explanation I can think of for the hammy acting (think Laurence Olivier on downers), Hammer horror-style touches (Miss Havisham looming like an apparition from the fireplace; Jaggers appearing, zombie-like, from a hole in the back of the set) and crummy sound effects.
Then there’s the design, which is more Halloween party than gothic splendour. Every spare inch of the stage is covered in dry ice and fake cobwebs, including the costumes, and the actors’ faces are painted chalk-white, like eighteenth-century courtesans.
Clifford has had a brave stab at paring back Dickens’ sprawling novel to fit a two-hour show, but the dialogue is stilted and the pace uneven: by the interval, young hero Pip hasn’t even reached London. Some of the performers manage to rise above the overall hamminess – notably, Josh Elwell as Joe Gargery – but this ‘Great Expectations’ is more pantomime than high drama. Laura Barnett