Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Review Roundup: West End's GREAT EXPECTATIONS - All the Reviews!

A new stage adaptation of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations opened at the West End's Vaudeville Theatre on 6 February 2013. Reprising their roles from the play's recent, successful UK tour, Jack Ellis stars as Jaggers, Chris Ellison as Magwitch and Paula Wilcox as Miss Havisham. The cast of 14 also includes Paul Nivison as Adult Pip, Grace Rowe as Estella and Taylor Jay-Davies as Young Pip.

Director and co-designer of Great Expectations is Graham McLaren, who established Theatre Babel and is an Associate Director for The National Theatre of Scotland.

The play recounts the story of a poor lad called Pip Gargery and his entanglement with embittered and reclusive Miss Havisham en route to wealth and status, and is perhaps the best loved Dickens tale of all.

Dickens' masterwork has been adapted for the stage by Jo Clifford, one of Scotland's leading playwrights. She is the author of approximately 80 plays and her work has been translated into several languages and produced throughout the world.

Let's see what the critics had to say:

Michael Coveney of writes: Taylor Jay-Davies makes a lively, eager Young Pip, while Chris Ellison is a slightly underpowered Magwitch, James Vaughan a vivid, theatrical Wopsle (and a lovely Wemmick, too) and Rhys Warrington a bright-eyed Pocket who dances along Miss Havisham's mantelpiece like a festive fairy. The adaptation by Scottish playwright Jo Clifford (first made thirty years ago) is a model of its kind, but it does suffer from sacrificing narrative pressure and clarity, and true Dickensian sentiment, for a different kind of potpourri "European" style.

Paul Taylor of the Independent says: Social subtlety is ruled out (the sequence where Herbert Pocket coaches Pip in deportment and the correct way to use a spoon, while reclining way above him on the mantelpiece is a particularly showy and unfunny clunker) as is the emotional nuance needed for the encounters with Joe and with Magwitch where our hero's snobbery painfully gets in the way. And the relationship between the two Pips remains stubbornly inert in this bold but crudely executed new vision of the material.

Lyn Gardner of the Guardian states: There are some good ideas, with the story framed as a memory play in which a middle-aged Pip observes his younger self through the cobwebs of time. It's clever, too, to set the entire show within Miss Havisham's crumbling drawing room, where worryingly vocal mice and the rotting wedding cake constantly remind you that this is a story not just of Great Expectations, but also destroyed illusions and lingering disappointments. McLaren takes it further by hinting that we all perform in life as if on stage, and he offers some of Dickens' larger-than-life characters as a series of white-faced grotesque turns. Nonetheless, it still feels unsatisfyingly like Dickens-lite - a headlong rush through the major chapters of the story without the emotional ballast required to give it meaning. Taylor Jay-Davies' Young Pip is oddly unsympathetic, and the memory-play element is underplayed, so we never get a dialogue between past and present, nor glimpse the emotional fatigue and endurance of the older Pip (Paul Nivison), who had so much within his grasp, and lost it.

Libby Purves of the Times says: What is so admirable about Jo Clifford's version, after years of workshops, is that it decisively shrugs off the many screen adaptations to make something that is pure theatre. Without timidity or hesitation, under Graham McLaren's inventive, physical, impressionistic direction, its two sharp one-hour acts honour both the playful demands of Living Theatre and the themes of the book...The bones of the story are all there. So is Dickens's rage at the cruelty of the judicial system and the shallow viciousness of class. The action is all in retrospect, with a quiet greying Pip watching his past enacted by spirited grotesques under a wash of blue or red light; it is hard to be emotionally engaged, except by Josh Elwell's affecting Joe Gargery. The child, like any child, is a puzzled onlooker amid gigantic caricatures: absurd Wopsle, violent Mrs Joe, sharp Estella (Grace Rowe)... The heart is there and the culmination thrilling: fire and fog, grief and anger and regret. And no truck with that soupy, artificial happy ending Edward Bulwer-Lytton made Dickens stick on.

Henry Hitchings of the Evening Standard writes: The appeal of Dickens's story isn't completely lost in Graham McLaren's production. There will always be something poignant in the transformation of Pip (a role shared by Taylor Jay-Davies and Paul Nivison) from a humble blacksmith's apprentice to an urbane gent. Yet we're never deeply invested in his journey, and the darker effects of his changed circumstances are too briefly explored.

The Londonist writes: The play is set in Miss Havisham's cobwebbed dining room for its entirety; understandable, as set-changes would be cacophonic otherwise, but this makes it very hard to follow if you aren't familiar with the book. While those who are can imagine between the lines, those who aren't are left bewildered. Indeed, each story is rushed from one to the other, so that wonderful moments that are memorable in the novel (such as Pip's encounter with Magwitch in the graveyard) are turned into one-minute moments of nothing. The production has a very rushed feel and was slightly incoherent; none of the scenes or character relations were developed, rather, the audience was just supposed to assume that Pip had fallen in love with Estella and that Joe and Pip were "ever the best of friends".

The Express says: As a concept it works, allowing the action to unfold quickly without the need for scene changes. And it's certainly arrestingly atmospheric, with a mood of almost gothic horror. All the characters, including Wilcox's bitter Miss Havisham, are played with melodramatic gusto but at times the whole thing feels more Dickens than Dickens. The already eccentric characters have become more exaggerated and with the plot stripped back and many roles sacrificed we're presented with a kind of dumbed down Dickens where the novel's themes are spelled out rather too simplistically.

Related Articles

From This Author Review Roundups