The moans and echoes of convicts groping out of a decaying ship echo around the stage, and the audience jump back. In the front row, I am terrified and know that this will not be the adaptation I was expecting. The gripping Great Expectations at the West Yorkshire Playhouse breathes new life into the Dickens classic by stripping Pip’s fateful journey from the marshes of Kent to the life of a gentleman to its bare, gothic bones.
Director Lucy Bailer faced the immense challenge of compressing a novel of over 500 pages, but her streamlined adaption never pauses for breath. Pip’s life rushes along on a revolving stage dominated by the creaking prison hulk haunting him since childhood. In under three hours, Pip is transformed from a solemn, put upon lad to an aspirational young man setting himself up for disappointment, all under the watch of a mysterious benefactor.
The production is striking in its gothic minimalism. The tale unfolds on a literal shipwreck of a stage that also evokes the decrepit halls of Miss Havisham’s Statis House, the bare poverty of the marshes, and the damp, dirty streets of London. The dark setting is one of the play’s strongest strengths, letting us know from the get-go that this will be an anti-fairy tale, where dreams are made only to be crushed.
Despite the gloom, the actors shine. Rhys Gammon shoulders a lot of responsibility as the young Pip, and his portrayal of the mistreated lad never fails to garner sympathy. Imogen Cole’s young Estella is a little heartbreaker who obviously revels in attracting and spurning the attention of young boys. The ghoulish fairy godmother of this tale, Miss Havisham, is played by Jane Asher with a surprising humanity that only makes her more chilling. Underneath the frayed wedding veil, her Miss Havisham is a complex woman whose understated but potent bitterness and genuine remorse make her a compelling, rather than merely creepy figure. Patrick Walshe McBride steals the show, and his delightfully camp and dandyish Herbert Pocket often overshadows Daniel Boyd’s admirable if more bland older Pip.
However, the nuances of the novel are lost in this adaption. Magwitch and Compeyson seem to barely feature in a play that favours the doomed love of Pip for Estella over Dickens’s sympathetic commentary on sin, crime and poverty. Shanaya Rafaat performs well, but her grown Estella is merely cold rather than cruel. Unlike her adoptive mother, she never repents. Instead of walking off hand in hand with Pip to an uncertain future, Estella rebuffs his kiss, coldly declaring that they may remain friends…But they will always be apart. Both the play and Dickens’s novel lament that there is no happily ever after in real life, but the less ambiguous ending leaves the audience, like Pip, a little let down. Perhaps this is the point. Overall, this grim and entertaining play reminds us that, no matter how hard we wish, dreams really don’t come true.