In the 150 years since it was published, Great Expectations has never been staged as a full-length play in the West End. It’s come close: Alec Guinness brought it to Rudolf Steiner Hall in Regent’s Park in 1939, playing Herbert Pocket himself, and a musical adaptation picked up awards in 1975, but otherwise, nada.
Truth be told, there are good reasons for that. Condense 550 pages of small print into two hours of stage time, as Jo Clifford does here, and the result is Dickens desiccated and deadly. All that remains is a skeletal précis. There’s scant time to linger over subtleties or engage the emotions. When, for instance, the orphaned Pip (Taylor Jay-Davies) pops on his new threads, thanks to that famously mysterious benefactor, his personality transplant could rival Clark Kent’s for speed. He goes from ’umble urchin to arrant knave in an instant.
Iconic supporting characters also become shells and those pinpoint Dickensian traits, insistent in print but never oppressively so, start to look like manic ticks. Jack Ellis’s Jaggers can hardly end a line without hollering “Hands” into the wings, while Rhys Warrington’s effete Herbert Pocket swaps his full-stops for shrill, trilled giggles and sounds oddly like a Michael Jackson impersonator. With no room to convey the purgatorial agony of Miss Havisham’s jilting, Paula Wilcox can only resort to staggering around like a frazzled waif in waiting.
In fairness, Graham McLaren’s production, which has been doing the rounds in some form or another since 1996, recognises this and opts for a cartoonish physical style. It twists the novel towards Through the Looking Glass fantasia and the result both looks fantastic and achieves the Punch cartoon quality that more po-faced adaptations sorely miss. Clifford frames the plot with Pip’s memories on returning to Satis House – a gorgeous gold-gilt and duck-egg set from Robin Peoples – and McLaren revels in its ghoulish timbre with a cobwebs and whiteface combo conjuring dusty, attic chic, albeit one that wouldn’t look amiss at the London Dungeon.
However, like Havisham’s adopted daughter Estella, McLaren’s production is superficially admirable but lacks any real heart. With the honourable exception of Josh Elwell’s jumbled Joe Gargery, its humour falls flat and the constant cruelty and abuse that Clifford draws out is too stagey to sting. Its real problem is theatrical naivety and, in the time it’s taken to reach the West End, this Great Expectations has started showing its age.