The Vaudeville seems a fitting space to stage Great Expectations. It was founded in 1870, just ten years after Dickens finished serialising his much loved classic, and Dickens himself – who loved theatre deeply – might have visited had he not died in the year it was completed. Like Dickens’ book, the Vaudeville also has a strong whiff of faded splendour: it’s been rebuilt twice, with each iteration retaining elements of the previous structure: a Victorian stage mechanism here, a discarded black curtain there.
Great Expectations is similarly a gothic collage of sorts – an assembly of varied grotesques: Magwitch the convict-come-benefactor, Miss Havisham the eternal bride-to-be, Jaggers the archetypal London hyper-lawyer. Dickens’ prose – by turns stately and satirical – makes his characters complex beings; glimpsed briefly on stage, however, they risk straying into caricature.
This is proved to be the case early on in director Graham McLaren’s production. He makes a mess of the relationship between Pip’s first guardians, the blacksmith Joe Gargery and his cruel wife, Mrs Joe Gargery. Dickens’ study of domestic abuse – subtle and sharp in the novel – is crassly directed here, with Isabelle Joss’s Mrs Joe tending to shout a lot and sometimes beat things with a stick. Herbert Pocket – immortalised by a young Alec Guinness in David Lean’s unbeatable 1946 film production – is another of the production’s casualties. Pip’s friend and tutor gets only a single scene, in which he is represented as a one-dimensional fop by the instantly irritating Rhys Wharrington.
Of course, much of this is inevitable. Characterisation is sacrificed at the altar of plot when a writer tries to compress a 500-word epic into less than two and a half hours (Jo Gifford, responsible for the adaptation, admits as much in her stage notes). Some shrewd characterisation, thankfully, does make it in. Grace Rowe’s Estella injects some much-needed sharpness into proceedings, and Taylor Jay-Davies’ Pip gets across the unlovable side of Dickens’ narrator – the gifted social climber, jostling to be part of London’s aristocracy. The overwrought lawyer-speak of Jaggers (Jack Ellis) also lends itself well to stage, providing a few precious drops of comic relief.
Where the play really fails, however, is the look and feel of the production. The set, costume design and sound are Vaudevillian-gothic ad nauseam. Annoying fairground music plays interminably in the background, the male characters almost all wear giant Dr Seuss-style striped top hats, and cobwebs are draped everywhere: on the lampshades, the tophats, even Miss Havisham’s cake.
The result is a Tim Burton-esque muddle. To gothicise every part of Great Expectations is to miss the point, detracting attention from its two gothic superstars: Abel Magwitch and Miss Havisham. The greatest adaptations of the book know this: David Lean used the novel's darker elements sparingly and to great effect. This production – assiduously gloomy to the point of tedium – overplays its hand.