Review: GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Garrick Theatre

The great comedienne conjures the great novelist's characters from thin air

By: May. 27, 2023
Review: GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Garrick Theatre

Review: GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Garrick Theatre Charles Dickens was the great storyteller of his time, his live readings provoking tears of sadness in his audience. Eddie Izzard is one of the great storytellers of our time, tears of laughter her currency, her stand-up shows selling out as once did Dickens’ personal appearances. They are  a natural fit, each bringing their vivid personalities to the stage.

Where the author would deliver famous set pieces (the death of Nancy in Oliver Twist was a weepy favourite), the actress takes on the formidable task of corralling all of Great Expectations, the 20 hours run time of Izzard's audiobook reading adapted down to two hours for the theatre. Her brother, Mark, took on that duty and, though you can see the cuts, the arc of Pip’s misconceived ambition and forlorn love remains intact.

With no props and a set that suggests rather than creates Satis House, the self-imposed prison in which Miss Havisham incarcerates herself and the instrument of her revenge, her adopted daughter, Estella, Izzard has to conjure characters and scenes out of thin air. To her credit, she avoids the trap of caricature (a temptation that’s never far away with Dickens), so Magwitch gets just a hint of an Australian accent on his return from transportation, Joe Gargery a mimed pipe, and we’re spared Bentley Drummle’s top hat.

It’s the type of challenge that Izzard has set herself throughout her career (on and off stage), but there is a danger that the virtuosity in performance overpowers the strengths of the story. It's a tricky balance to strike and one that Izzard is clearly mindful to avoid, so the jokes are rationed out with great care. 

It is perhaps revealing that the best moments come when the comedienne is allowed to peek out from behind the author - the repeated sight gag in receiving letters that seldom brought good news, the wandering round the stage to suggest the coach trips between London and the Kent Marshes, the twisting walks up dingy spiral staircases. The clowning is relief from the intensity of the story, both in its pacing and its cavalcade of characters, it's a crowdpleasing diversion, but it’s also a reminder that we’re soon back in a world of cruelty, powered by Miss Havisham’s neuroses and her coercive control of Estella.

That relevance to present day hot-button topics pulls us up sharply, the picaresque sitting between the comic and the tragic then as now. Izzard knows that and can switch our sentiments in an instant with a too-proud look from Pip towards Joe one moment to a sympathetically generous act the next, as the fortunate-but-not-fortunate young man shares his mysterious wealth with his feckless but loyal friend, Herbert Pocket. We’re being manipulated first by the writer and then by the performer, but we accept it, even enjoy it.

If the resolutions come a little too quickly in this abridged version, the coincidences feeling more arbitrary than they do in the book, Izzard is keen to encourage the audience to go back to the source material, acknowledging that even as subtle and masterful a version as this requires compromise. What emerges beyond the text is something less tangible: the delight she takes in holding a house in her hands; the skill in making the smallest of gestures count for so much and the warmth crossing back and forth across the fourth wall. It is in those intangible elements that the theatrical magic flows, like mist over the marshes, from stage to stalls to circle. 

There will always be one-person Dickens shows in London, especially at Christmas, but none quite like this one. If the decisions it takes in order to tell the story won’t please every purist, the craft, and the emotion it provokes, is more than enough in compensation. 

Great Expectations at the Garrick Theatre until 1 July                 

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

2023 Regional Awards


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