Neil Bartlett puts Great Expectations on stage

Great Expectations
Bristol Old Vic, 2 October

Great Expections at Bristol Old Vic
Adjoa Andoh as Miss Havisham. Photography by Mark Douet.

This new stage adaptation of Dickens’ great novel had the atmosphere right from the very first moment. Though I was initially thrown by the unusual staging, I immediately knew where I was and with whom, and greatly enjoyed reliving the story of Pip.

The first impression can’t help but be that staging, with a sparse set and minimal props (at one point the actors were stood in a completely empty black stage) and most of the cast on stage for key scenes, acting as a chorus of voices and/or visible stage hands. I did find this initially distracted me from the acting but once you get used to it it’s actually very effective and immediate.

The cast (especially Tom Canton, who played Pip) narrated the story as well as acting it, often switching between the two mid-sentence. A lot of Dickens’ original language has been absorbed into both the script and the acting, which makes sense of and emphasises the beauty of the language. I laughed out loud but I also came close to tears several times.

That is something the play does brilliantly – it gets Dickens’ humour and really uses it. Dickens characters are notoriously a mix of caricature and realistic, and the acting reflected that, with some characters (e.g. Miss Havisham’s relative Sarah Pocket, played by Miltos Yerolemou) consistently playing it for laughs. However, I did think Estella and Miss Havisham might have merited a few more subtle moments. Pip is just the right mixture of pathos, innocence, frustrating boy making mistakes and downright arrogant/self-serving young man.

I loved the use of doors as props – it was original and effective. For instance, the bewildering size of Miss Havisham’s house was created by having several actors holding doors that they move around to create a maze of corridors. However, the other major prop – microphones on stands – I was less convinced by. The actors would occasionally speak into the microphones to add sound effects, which sounds good on paper but again was something that for me jolted me out of being absorbed by the story and reminded me that these were actors on a stage.

Overall, though, the sound staging was excellent and formed a big part of the wonderfully chilling atmosphere. And that scene, you know, the last one with Miss Havisham (played by Adjoa Andoh), was absolutely brilliantly staged, with Andoh putting her heart and soul into it. I’m so glad they really went for it. It’s supposed to be a big dramatic moment and deserves this treatment.

The more I reflect on it, the more I realise how well this adaptation was done. In just 2.5 hours they get to the heart and soul of a fairly big, dense work of fiction. They even made me want to go back and read Dickens, which isn’t something I’ve wanted to do for a few years now!

Disclaimer: Tickets were kindly supplied to me by the theatre in return for an honest review.

The show runs until 2 November.