Review of Ashton Hayes Theatre Club’s production of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens adapted & directed by Yvette Owen
I attended this production of the Dickens’ classic at Tarvin Community Centre on the final Friday of the run. The cast played to a full house in a well laid out seating and staging arrangement.
Yvette Owen’s adaptation is set in the 1920’s with sharp but very effective emphasis on the styles and clothing fashions of the time. We are taken seamlessly through the 80 years that make up Pip’s life reflecting the form of each period throughout the play, of particular interest was the addition of, often vibrant, colour to both men’s and women’s wardrobes of the time.
Though some of the larger than life characters provided opportunities for humour, however 'Great Expectations' is not a bundle of historic fun. It is often poignant, sad and not a little depressing at times. But that is what makes this a compelling story, and the audience on Friday seemed hypnotically engaged by both the story, the music (yes music in a Dickens play) and this meticulously-directed and worthy adaptation of a much loved classic novel. I admit I had reservations about the period setting for the first few scenes of the play, but those quickly passed and I found the story and its setting totally absorbing too.
The play is set in the same Kent countryside and London that that Dickens originally set this, his the thirteenth novel, first published as a serial in Dickens' weekly periodical ‘All the Year Round’, from 1 December 1860 to August 1861. The coming-of-age novel by Charles Dickens was originally set almost one hundred years before our adaption here in the Tarvin Community Centre. The main location, most of us will recall, is Miss Havisham's house where the set is both evocative and impressively detailed with everything encapsulated in time, here we find the remnants of a wedding which never happened and a bitter jilted bride. This set forms the centre piece on stage both literally and from the set design and layout perspective. To the left of stage is the set that Pip’s sister and her husband Joe inhabit as part of Joes’ blacksmiths shop. To the right of the stage is a set more adaptable to hosting the numerous other facets of this stage play. These three distinct areas of set have one thing in common, they are designed and laid out with simplicity but with great attention to detail and reflect the period very effectively, in turn introducing this atypical period setting easily to the audience and embedding it as intrinsic part of this adaptation from the very opening scene.
Phillip Pirrup, nicknamed Pip, played by Charlie Auckland-Lewis (young Pip), Dan Aynsley and Mike Melville (old Pip) is an orphan living with his ‘at best unwelcoming’ sister and her blacksmith husband Joe. Each of the actors brought their own personal touch to Pip’s character, Auckland- Lewis plays an engrossing scene early on in the play alongside Stuart McNeil as Magwitch, Aynsley’s excellence was in bringing the emotional and romantic element of Pip alive and Melville was simply outstanding with his silvery delivery of the narrative as we passed from scene to scene throughout Pip’s 80 years. Melville opens with “The human heart is a wonderful organ. If nurtured the heart has the capacity to bring great happiness to anyone brought under its wing. But mistreat or starve it of love and it may shatter into a thousand pieces and leave a swathe of destruction in its wake.” These opening are scenes set on the Kent marshes and were given authenticity through the cleverly supporting sound effects of curlew calling along with other marsh birds transporting the audience to the very edges of those imaginary reed beds.
Pip’s unplanned and violent meeting with Magwitch is in these opening stages of the play at the graveyard and is significant in as much as the small unsolicited act of kindness in bringing Magwitch some cake is an abiding memory for its recipient.
Pip first encounters Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter Estella, whose beauty and haughtiness is brought alluringly to the audiences attention by Grace Owen’s skillful acting, in the time capsule that is Miss Havisham’s house. She makes no bones about clearly telling Pip that he is coarse and common. However Pip is already in love with her and keen to point out (in a move away from the original) that he has his own expectations of becoming a recognised writer. When a mysterious benefactor allows Pip to move to London and become a gentleman, he hopes to win over Estella and achieve a wealthy, enviable life through his writing. This ambition is a golden thread that weaves though this adaptation very neatly and provides Pip with a little more purpose than in the original novel.
For me the play brought the topics of rural poverty, love and in particular the human approach to our emotions of guilt and forgiveness to the fore, particularly the need to forgive one’s self.
The cast and storytelling were further enhanced by the four well chosen, modern and professionally sung songs at key points of the play. The choristers came from three local choirs and collectively sung beautifully with a well balanced cast of sotto voce and orotund voices. The scene at the society ball supported by the lyrics of Moby’s “Be the One” was very emotive and worked tremendously well for me.
The story progresses through as we would expect with many short scenes delivering as much to the audience of the original novel as you can reasonably expect to get in to an 80 minute play. None were too short I would suggest to those who were familiar to the novel, but may have been for those who were not able to relate it to past exposure to Great Expectations. The second half of the play was trumped by the excellent scene of the revelation of Pip’s benefactor played brilliantly by McNeil, Magwitch loves Pip with a simple heart, and, having had a chance to return to the basic tenderness that was always within him, is able to die with dignity and peace knowing he had done his upmost to repay Pip for his kindness all those years ago in the graveyard.
Meanwhile Pip’s originally unrequited love is beginning to bear fruit as Estella slowly reveals a softer, more affectionate side after all the years of callousness ingrained in to her by Miss Havisham. As Estella realises her true feelings towards Pip, an emotional heart gripping line is delivered by Owen ‘My heart maybe broken in to many pieces but I love him with every single one of those tiny pieces.’ We know now that Pip’s unfaltering love for Estella is finally going to bring the two of them together.
The closing scene of the play is very simple in its design and execution but quite brilliantly pulls each of the raw threads of emotion we have been experiencing as an audience together in a coming to consciousness about the numerous mistakes we are all apt to make within our own lives. Old Pip and old Estella along with young Pip and young Estella both appear as couples centre stage in a warm embrace with each other, succinctly summarising their long and tortuous path of love and despair with just about every other human emotion in between.
The cast of 18 (not including the singers) all delivered their own excellent personal performances to bring each of the characters acutely in to focus and collectively delivered what was an outstanding evening’s entertainment and a very professional performance of an adaptation of a classic novel which should never have worked on paper, let alone the stage. But it did, and did so brilliantly. Maybe this production should make its way to our new theatre ‘The Story House’ in Chester as its next stop!
17th March 2017