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BWW Review: GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Rotherhithe Playhouse

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Rotherhithe Playhouse's unique adaptation delivers the celebrated tale with wit and wisdom

BWW Review: GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Rotherhithe Playhouse

BWW Review: GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Rotherhithe Playhouse A little awning in an oasis of a churchyard a rabbit's burrow's distance away from the Tunnel is our venue, Time and Talents, "Rotherhithe Playhouse" more a psychological than physical space. We gather as, nearly two hundred years ago, the populace of Rotherhithe and elsewhere would gather to hear readings of Charles Dickens' works. That sense of shared history, of enduring community, of (dare one say the word) solidarity, leaches into one's heart. It really is worth going just for that ten minutes before the show starts to experience the feeling.

After an energetic, if somewhat unnecessary, framing device, we're soon growing up with Pip, the protagonist of Dickens' celebrated novel of pride, class, revenge and so much more. So rich is the source material that it can sustain its many, many adaptations and, no matter if its your first or your tenth trip through adolescence with Pip, it will reward you with new thoughts, new parallels with your own life, new joy and pain.

This high wire adaptation by Phil Willmott can only work if the ensemble cast commit heart and soul to the production and, standing at times in the rain, they really do. Though it's invidious to identify the most excellent in a sea of acting excellence, Gabriel Haastrup catches Magwitch's threat and fear perfectly, enough to frighten the children (any adaptation of Dickens worth its salt has to clear that bar) but not enough to give them nightmares. Danny Hetherington too navigates Pip's hero - villain - hero character arc with aplomb, the sneer of his gentleman's education never fully flattening the decent kid we saw working for his Uncle Joe.

If the last twenty minutes or so is a little tricky to follow as disparate plot lines are pulled together, then the same can be said for the book, though some of the inevitable excisions of characters and conflations of motivations do make for an ending that is a little too swift and maybe a little too neat.

It's a mark of the universality of the material that, 30 years on from first engaging with Pip and Estella, I still understand why he did what he did and would probably do the same thing myself. But Miss Havisham, played with a Bette Davis flourish by Jan Olivia Hewitt, is, with my passage from mid-20s to mid-50s and the greater understanding of neurosis and related conditions in the 21st century, a more sympathetic character for all her destructive, vindictive impulses.

Rotherhithe Playhouse is a bold and risky concept (tickets are "Pay only what you can") but one that continues to produce splendid work and deserves to find audiences (and sponsors) who can rest assured that Willmott's track record of staging classic works is as good as a guarantee on the playbill. If you're dazzled by all the glitz and glamour of the shows slowly returning to the West End, you'll be equally (if differently) dazzled by this innovative staging of one of English Literature's greatest works.

Great Expectations is at Time & Talents until 19 September

Photo Phil Swallow


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