This month West Yorkshire Playhouse presents Great Expectations in the Quarry Theatre, in a new adaptation by Michael Eaton. A tale of fortune, favour, identity and destiny, the play follows the story of a blacksmith’s apprentice as he is funded by a mysterious donor to become a wealthy gentleman.
Charles Dickens’ celebrated novel has been adapted for stage and screen numerous times with variable success. Michael Eaton’s new imagining for West Yorkshire Playhouse attempts to capture the gothic intensity of the novel and is directed with an equally dark intent by Lucy Bailey. One of the draws of Dickens is the detail in his writing, be it character or place, and Bailey’s production embraces a love of stage business and detailed dressing to bring that world to life.
Bailey’s last production at the Playhouse was a refreshing staging of Dial M For Murder, utilising a meticulously-detailed rotating set. Again a similar methodology is used for Great Expectations, providing a cinematic feel with an endless movement and momentum, continuously driving the story through revolutions to cross-cut scenes. Naturalism is found in the detail of the set and costume, however the broader landscape adopts a twisted abstract feel, evoking an oppressive psychosis with greasy wood panels arching into a dramatic, almost Turner-inspired horizon.
Eaton’s adaptation is true to the novel and distills Dickens’ many ingredients into a piece which runs just under three hours. The first act is dynamically paced and revels in the richness of its characterisation and sense of place, with only the second act feeling a little shoehorned as the plot escalates in pace. Scenes are short and could be compared to a modern television adaptation, which may be the author’s intent as younger audiences are likely to be as familiar with a network drama as the original novel.
Casting is excellent, with Daniel Boyd delivering a sensitive but determined Pip; the subtle transformations from scruff to Gentleman are beautifully realised. A standout performance from Patrick Walshe McBride as Herbert Pocket ensures that the play also has plenty of comedic levity. Ian Burfield as Magwitch radiates a brutal dominance which is truly electrifying when he confronts Pip as a gentleman. Dangerous yet sincere, his character is perfectly channeled in this production. Shanaya Rafaat’s Estella is suitably cold and distant, a pernicious ice princess with a chilling allure.
Jane Asher is Miss Havisham in a haunting performance which is at once as beautiful as she is grotesque; a living ghost haunting her own wedding table with a statuesque beauty, Asher’s Havisham is steely and cutting with an unsettling presence that fulfills the iconic reputation of one of Dickens’ most famous characters.
An excellent young company comprised of Rhys Gannon as Pip, Magnus Cameron as Pocket and Imogen Cole as Estella provide engaging childhood evocations of the characters they are to become, with a seamless transition between the companies.
Great Expectations presents a world which feels expansive and tangible; Dickens’ characters breathe with a potent depth and reality. Lit by flickering candlelight with a dank, grimy feel, the play is a gothic Victorian ordeal with a relentlessly uneasy tone. Compelling, enchanting and haunting, the show captures the essence of the novel and stands alone as a hugely worthwhile theatrical experience.
Cast: Jane Asher, James Barrett, Oliver Boot, Daniel Boyd, Antony Bunsee, Ian Burfield, Patrick Walshe McBride, Bill Nash, Shaun Prendergast , Shanaya Rafaat, Rose Wardlaw Director: Lucy Bailey Writer: Michael Eaton Theatre: West Yorkshire Playhouse Duration: 160 minutes Dates: 8th March – 2nd April 2016.