Review: Great Expectations (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, October 6th)

A mean, moody and thrillingly atmospheric new stage adaptation of Great Expectations is a wonderfully fitting way to celebrate the bicentenary of Charles Dickens.

If you thought there had been enough versions of this classic novel on stage and screen recently, then change your mind quickly and get along to Brighton to see the tremendous new Beckman Unicorn production, which is lavish, stylish, and unashamedly theatrical.

Great Expectations is, according to a recent poll, the most popular novel by Dickens - and this production makes the most of its popularity while giving its own stripped-down take on the story.

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Adapted by Jo Clifford and lovingly conceived and directed by Graham McLaren, this production is on a short national tour before heading to the West End and is a refreshing and glorious work of art, not afraid to jettison some of the book’s plot and characters to concentrate on some of the key players and themes.

Dickens’ dark side of crime, spurned love, social class, and ambition, coupled with the central character’s personal growth, are given a truly raw and sinister twist as an older Pip (Paul Nivison) - the hero of the story - stands in a vast cobwebbed sitting room of Miss Havisham’s Satis House, remembering the larger than life ghosts of his past in what is almost like a circus of horrors.

The decaying grandeur of Robin Peoples’ single set is a star in its own right, with Kai Fischer’s exquisite lighting and Matt Mackenzie’s subtle sound sweeping the characters from the warm glow of Joe Gargery’s smithy to the creaky creepiness of the Satis mansion, the eerie and desolate marsh, and the bustling yet haunting London cityscape appearing more like a corrupt Gotham City in which Batman wouldn’t have seemed out of place.

You feel Dickens would have delighted in the wonderful and fantastic portrayals of the grotesque characters, brought more vividly to life than perhaps any company has managed for this celebrated author since the RSC’s epic Nicholas Nickleby.

Such is the excellence of the cast that it is hard to pick out particular performances as exceptional, as there is not one weak link in this captivating production. The likes of James Vaughan’s hideously dramatic would-be actor Mr Wopsle (a cross between Vincent Crummles and the Mad Hatter) and Isabelle Joss’s fierce and fearsome Mrs Joe set the scene for what may send the gripped audience home with nightmares.

Then there is Paula Wilcox in commanding form as the eccentric and embittered Miss Havisham, flitting around an ancient old relic of a wedding cake; Chris Ellison superb as brutish but kind-hearted convict Magwitch; Jack Ellis as the confident, impenetrable and cynical lawyer Jaggers; Steve North as the long-suffering Joe; Nathan Guy as Pip’s London friend and social tutor Herbert Pocket, impishly leaping from table to mantelpiece and exuding mischief; Grace Rowe’s cold Estella, a tool of vengeance for her adopted mother; and Taylor Jay-Davies as the protagonist Pip, desperate to improve himself and bustled through the story like Alice adventuring through a phantasmic wonderland to self discovery.

This is a rare jewel of a production, one of those must-see works of quality that is likely to un-nerve as well as entertain.

David Guest