There will always be speculation when a literary masterpiece is translated into a full West End Show for the first time. When the literature in question is Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, I think it’s only natural to be skeptical for the sake of its legacy. I entered the Vaudeville Theatre as a latecomer, therefore missing the start of the show – and not in the best mood. I walked in at the moment that Pip meets a frightening Miss Havisham, who lingers like venom on the stage in a tattered, greying wedding dress. I was instantly transfixed.
Paula Wilcox plays an excellent Miss Havisham – exuding bitterness and invoking hatred for the duration of her appearances on stage. Estella was cruel and beautiful, but lacking is spite compared with the novel. Joe’s character was incredibly earnest, embodying the spirit of a true gentleman, but this is oblivious to the ignorance of the young Pip, who is completely naïve to the corruptions of society or love. It is crucial that the casting for Dickens’ finest plot was accurate, and it was a relief that most of the actors embodied the depth of the original characters.
The set design by Robin Peoples was outstanding, and very effective. The whole performance is situated within the diminished drawing room of Miss Havisham’s gothic mansion, Satis House. Stretching way up into the higher tiers of the theatre, are three ruined walls encasing the stage. There were cobwebs hanging off of every fixture and background sounds of creaking floorboards and scuttling mice. A decayed wedding cake takes center stage on a large wooden table, setting the tone of the whole play, and the eerie atmosphere and prominent dry ice in the air coaxes you into a mild disturbia. I wouldn’t conventionally think that the set would work as the story develops, but it somehow does!
The most interesting part of the play was the clever incorporation of the first person narrative, just as the book itself was originally written, using two actors for the younger and older Pip. The play is based on the memories of a middle aged Pip who subtly shadows the younger Pip around the stage, narrating passages of the book before the key scenes happen. This was quite an effective way of showing how Pip looks back upon his memories in dismay, as the older Pip painfully regards the immaturity of his younger self. At times I felt that the connection between the two actors was very awkward, considering that they are supposed to be the same person. For example, they were stood side by side upon the news of his sister’s death, but there could have easily been a brick wall between the actors – as there was no emotion connection between them at all. The older Pip passively observed like a stranger, as young Pip fell apart. Perhaps the actors had had a misunderstanding beforehand, or maybe they are supposed to seem very disconnected, I will never know – but that was my only criticism.
With great expectations often comes disappointment, but this wasn’t the case at the Vaudeville Theatre. I would definitely recommend catching this brilliant adaptation of Dickens’ classic – regardless if you have read the book or not. The show continues until 1 June 2013.