Great Expectations
Theatre by the Lake, 20th July
***

When Philip ‘Pip’ Pirrip first visits Satis House as a child, the hostile, beautiful Estella explains to him that the name means ‘enough’ in multiple languages. The owner of the house, she goes on, cannot help but be satisfied with such a fine house. But the great estate is, as we all know, is haunted by the living phantom of Miss Havisham, a jilted bride who never recovered from being let down at the altar by her beau.

Martin Johns’ set design is composed of the beautiful, decaying façade of the great house, inset with broken mirrors and picture Great Expectationsframes, full of hidden doors and windows, draped in dust and cobwebs. The actors transform the set themselves as they bustle on and off stage in plain base costumes, carting tables, chairs and wedding feasts between them, and slinking off without a word. But they are far from unobtrusive, throwing open windows and doors and creeping in a mass across the stage to hiss and shout words at Pip as he recounts his story. At first this technique is quite abrasive, but as the audience gets used to the sudden appearances of the rest of the ensemble it becomes an effective way of conveying Pip’s internal insecurities.

The production was beautifully coordinated; Miss Havisham’s entrances were always heralded the same way, with the doors of Satis House thrown open to reveal her hunched over her cane in a haze of smoke, which parts as she takes three quick paces forwards. The stage is used with ingenuity when Pip is led through the maze of Satis House by Estella, who guides him by candlelight in and out of the many doors of the stage. Though the cast were all wonderfully characterised, special mention must go to Nicholas Goode as Herbert Pocket, who held his glass high in a toast throughout one of Pip’s lengthy reminiscences, kept a cool head and announced ‘on with the plot’ while the audience erupted in laughter over a spilled glass of wine.

There is so much complexity to Dickens’ plot that the ending of the book feels like a jigsaw puzzle falling into place before your eyes. Unfortunately this performance of the classic left out what felt like major aspects of the backstory, including the true story of Miss Havisham’s romantic entanglement and its disastrous outcome. The unity of the original story is somewhat lost in the end of this production, with only the central, vital loose ends tied up, such as the truth of Estella’s parentage. It is understandable that such complexity would take up additional stage time in what needs to be a tight production, but it does seem that a few more of Dickens’ final plot twists would have been worth the extra five minutes.

The ending unfortunately seemed particularly anticlimactic and even more ambiguous than Dickens’ much-contested rewritten ending; however, after such an immersive and enjoyable production this seemed a small let-down in comparison.

 

Alex Mullarky

Image by Keith Pattison