Great Expectations, now playing at the Vaudeville Theatre, is based on the novel by Charles Dickens, a work that has seen many adaptations on the big and small screen.
The story is played out on one set, a decaying room filled with cobwebs and dust, with parts of the wall fallen off to make an interesting point of entry for characters. The set is impressive, but unfortunately all of the action takes place around this one set, centred on a massive dining table, which characters walk around, go over and sometimes perform on top of.
The cobweb theme continues through the play as all the characters apart from the adult Pip are covered in dust, made up like ghosts and look more like they’re off to a Halloween party. It takes a bit away from the characters and at times it appears a bit silly, especially when Pip is dressed up in his gentleman clothes and there is a gigantic cobweb on the back of his jacket. Is it so that everything in the play matches the decaying room of Havisham? I suspect so, but it doesn’t entirely work.
What also doesn’t work is having the adult Pip present as the narrator on stage for the entire play. You feel really sorry for Paul Nivison after a while, as he is on stage nearly the whole play with no other purpose than reacting to the other actors, and pausing to narrate. It looks dreadfully boring, and it’s not great to watch. The problem with the running narration is that we as an audience are told important plot points rather than shown them, especially in the first act where the performers keep going from one side of the stage to the other doing quick scenes to get through the important parts with narration to set us up for the second act where Pip is in his gentleman training. It feels very rushed and is difficult to follow.
The play calms down in the second act where more time is spent with the characters and their growth, and you have moments where the play gets very interesting, although the ending is a let down, as is the lack of chemistry between our Pip and Estella.
The highlight of the play is Chris Ellison as Magwitch, who is believable and engaging. While his character is one of a criminal, in the end he’s the one you sympathise the most with as you learn how much he has lost. A good second is Josh Elwell as Joe Gargery, who you can’t help but feel pity for, as he remains upbeat while living with a frankly verbally abusing wife.
The play is in the end mostly let down by a messy script and direction, you can see the actors trying their hardest to make it engaging, but it’s difficult to care too much when you have seen so little character development. It was unfortunate for the show also that an audience member was taken ill in the last five minutes of the show, which meant an abrupt pause while it was determined the audience member was okay. They then cracked on with great professionalism and finished the play’s last minutes.
It is not an outright bad show, but with a work as immense and powerful as Great Expectations can be, you can’t help but expect a bit more.
Review by Tori Jo Lau
17th February 2013