Thanks to playwright Michael Eaton, Great Expectations, Charles Dickens’ tale of an orphaned aspiring social climber, feel stills relevant today in spite of retaining its famous, richly-detailed period setting. This is mainly down to the assured direction from Lucy Bailey, which walks a tricky tightrope between constant shifts in tone, albeit more so than in previous adaptations.
The timeless tale remains the same: a terrifying chance encounter propels young orphan Pip from the life of a humble blacksmith’s apprentice to that of a wealthy gentleman. Determined to prove himself worthy of the ‘heart-broken’ Miss Havisham and her beautiful but icy ward Estella, Pip eagerly embraces his new position. But his past is not so easily abandoned and when the nature of his great expectations are discovered, Pip must decide on his true identity.
We are introduced to Ian Burfield as Magwitch in the opening sequence, which initially evokes horror-movie imagery, before ending in gentle comedy. These themes were all in Dickens’ novel, of course, but the screenplay and direction here doesn’t just flirt with gothic literature in the manner the source material does. It often has the courage of its convictions, through innovative staging and bellowing melodramatic performances to become a full-blooded horror. The only problem is that this is thrown by the wayside in sequences that focus more on comedy, family drama or period realism— individual sequences are effective, but as a whole it does feel uneven, if frequently enjoyable.
However, there are many other reasons the new staging feels contemporary. None of these feel more desperate for relevancy than knowingly framing a scene of 19th century debauchery in a manner that seems calculated to make audience members recall David Cameron’s infamous exploits at the Bullingdon Club. Moments like this are when the play is at its weakest; this is a bold new adaptation of a well-known classic work, that doesn’t need to resort to topical gags in order to still feel relevant. In British society, the bare bones of Dickens’ class-obsessed narrative will always be relatable.
But these are minor quibbles with an enjoyable new adaptation. Being sat in the front few rows during many visceral sequences, which were played out on the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s iconic revolving stage, added to the overall genre-hopping experience. Even though they threatened to become overshadowed by the rotating stage that made me worried for the actors during scene transitions while drunk acting, the performances lay equal claim to making this a bold new adaptation.
Newcomer Sullivan Martin, playing the young Pip, was a revelation. It might just be shock at discovering a child actor who isn’t incessantly annoying, but he delivered a stronger performance than his grown-up counterpart (played by Daniel Boyd). Which isn’t to say there were any weak-links in the ensemble; anything that didn’t work was a result of jarring tonal shifts or desperate cries for relevancy.
You may have Great Expectations for this latest adaptation. But even as it doesn’t achieve greatness, it does feel distinctive among a plethora of adaptations of Dickens’ masterpiece.