It is tempting with Charles Dickens’ much-loved story, Great Expectations, to simplify, modernise, slim down and speed up the epic tale coming-to-senses tale. But the production by the newly-formed Tilted Wig company, was surprisingly (and satisfyingly) true to the original, making for a long evening of bold theatricality.
In the play on at the Cambridge Arts Theatre through Saturday 16 June the language was properly Dickensian and most of the elements of the sinewy story were kept in place. That had both good and not so good consequences. On the down side, the play runs for over 2 ½ hours but even so did seem rushed by the imperative to get large chunks of the story told. At other times, the action was halted by the need to convey lots of necessary narrative. Again on the weak side: the doubling of parts and some rather indistinct Mumersetshire accents did make some lines fade away into the wings.
This is such a big ticket production that even with the above caveats, there is much to savour and enjoy. The strength of this production was in its stage craft and performances. It is very much an ensemble piece with most of the actors staying on stage to hand props to the speaking parts, create eerie sound effects (brilliantly done), carry atmospheric lanterns or provide musical accompaniment (including some fine squeezebox playing).
It is a constantly busy show and you have to keep on your toes – especially if you are unfamiliar with the story. Central, of course, to the story is Miss Havisham, the jilted bride who festers along with her mouldering wedding cake, mice-nibbled bridal dress and devastated life. She was superbly played by Nichola McAuliffe – brittle, angry, pained, tragic – and truly looking like a zomboid ghost. There was anguish and bile in her voice but yet she could move one to tears.
Sean Aydon was a slight disappointment as Pip, the central character in the plot. His piping high-pitched voice as Pip the boy in the early scenes, was jarring to the ear and not particularly convincing. He grew into the part as the story takes the character quickly into adulthood – yet even here, there was something a little lacking in tone and variety. That said, he did look the part. Isla Carter convinced as a very cold-hearted Estella – plus she had to play at least three other characters. Daniel Goode was excellent as the prisoner-on-the-run Magwitch – full of brutish anger but tender concern for his ‘dear boy’, Pip.
There were other strong performances not least from Edward Ferrow as the ill-educated but warm hearted and honest Joe Gargery. He too played at least three other parts and did them all well. There were some very dramatic scenes including a chillingly convincing inferno as Miss Havisham’s world goes up in flames. Though some of expectations were less than great, if you love Dickens’ classic novel, you will find much to enjoy in this bold production.