Menacing criminals, a young man with ambition and a properly bonkers old lady – this was definitely a play that delivered on Great Expectations.
London Contemporary Theatre delivered a truly modern theatrical take on Charles Dickens’ classic coming of age novel in their penultimate touring performance at Stamford Arts Centre last night.
The story is centred around young Philip “Pip” Pirrip’s journey from childhood to middle age and deals with criminality, love and ambition.
Pip begins his life in very humble circumstances, but he is soon thrust onto a path that will eventually lead him towards a very different life.
A chance meeting with an escaped convict and an invitation to a decaying stately home where Pip meets the bitter and twisted Miss Havisham and her beautiful adopted daughter Estella, starts Pip on a voyage of self-discovery.
The problem with any adaptation of this particular story, however, is that Dickens’ novel spans a period of about thirty years and contains a densely populated world of both major and minor characters, some of which are peripheral, but many who are woven together to make up the intricate tapestry of the story.
The challenge, therefore, when adapting such an epic tale for the stage is in deciding what to keep in and what to leave out – it is essentially a question of what is crucial and what is superficial.
Scriptwriter Tom Crowley handled this problem very well in his modern take on the story of the boy with high aspirations. Managing to condense the story down into a couple of hours on stage, the production is actually pretty faithful to its source, with certain updated details thrown in.
From Pip having to clean up baby sick in his job at ASDA to him securing a place at the London School of Economics through Clearing, there are contemporary references everywhere, many of which elicited approving laughs from the audience.
Undoubtedly, however, there have to be compromises and modifications in any adaptation, and this production was no exception. We are introduced to a newly constructed character in the shape of Pip’s mother, Jo.
In the original novel Pip’s mother and father are dead and he lives with his harshly unkind sister and her husband, Joe Gargery. Joe is a friend to Pip and a particularly loveable character. Sadly, Joe is one of the casualties here, and those who love the novel will undoubtedly mourn his loss.
However, the production makes up for this slight by delivering a talented ensemble performance. All the actors play two parts, except Jonathan Brindley who plays Pip and manages to age beautifully during the course of the play.
The doubling is particularly effective in the characters of Estella and Biddy, played by Catherine Thorncombe. The cold, harsh Estella is in stark contrast to the warm, bubbly Biddy and to have the same actress play both parts lends a deeper dimension to an understanding of each character.
Music features very effectively in the production, most notably in-between scenes, with a striking arrangement that emulates a ticking clock and, when taken together with the stylised choreography, skilfully emulates the passing of time.
Lucy Peacock, who plays Miss Havisham and Jo Gargery, puts in two very diverse performances and yet is completely believable in both.
As the batty old lady she is suitably unnerving, and as Pip’s mum she is warm and earnest and her relationship with the young Pip is one of the most credible in the play.
To add to this she puts in a hilarious bonus performance as an opera singing busker, a moment which stands on its own as a piece of true entertainment.
There are many other laughs in the play, and it would be hard to forget the way Mr Jaggers, in this adaptation a university professor, rides his swivel chair off the stage, carrying his whole desk and laptop with him.
The only truly disappointing moment is the extremely confusing scene which leaves audience members scratching their heads wondering what has just happened to Miss Havisham. For those who are unfamiliar with the novel it would be unclear exactly what the action is meant to represent.
Nonetheless, this play is a truly enjoyable experience and leaves the audience in absolutely no doubt that their expectations for a great night out have most definitely been fulfilled.
Stamford Arts Centre – 15th October 2014.
London Contemporary Theatre Company have been touring Great Expectations at UK theatres with their final date at the Pomegranate Theatre, Chesterfield on 17th October 2014.