Great Expectations (Playground Theatre)

Directed by Anastasia Revi, Theatre Lab Company’s newest show is the first they have staged at the Playground Theatre, and the larger stage space has given them free reign to create an atmosphere which suits Charles Dickens’s complicated novel.

The set is initally divided in three, with the actors stock still as if in a waxwork tableau: Miss Havisham in court on her table of decaying food, surrounded by paper clock faces forever stopped at twenty to nine. Joe and his wife, Mrs Joe, in the blacksmith’s cottage with its furnace and frugal appearance. Pip at his parents’ graveside, a desperate convict about to pounce.

Great Expectations is a confusing story in many ways as we follow Philip Pirrip the younger (“Pip”) from his beginnings as a grubby, common orphan to an arrogant gentleman. As a boy, he makes a strong attachment to the beautiful and clever Estella, but her heart is closed and cold. When Pip gains good fortune enough to allow him those “great expectations” of which he has dreamed, he loses sight of what is really good and fine in his life: but redemption is at hand and lessons will be learned.

Herbert Pocket (Shaun Amos), Miss Haversham, Jaggers (David Furlong) in Great Expectations
Herbert Pocket (Shaun Amos), Miss Haversham, Jaggers (David Furlong) in Great Expectations

Eirini Kariori’s set is full of decay, dust, flowers, leaves, glitter and gothic gloom, and has a strange and ethereal beauty about it; the costumes she co-designed with Vivien Wilson complement their surroundings completely. This is an alternative festive ghost story – we are used to the regular stagings of A Christmas Carol, but this story also has meat enough on its bones to chill the soul, with the figure of the bride frozen in time and the mysterious benefactor.

With comic relief from the laconic Jaggers and the aristocratic Master Pocket lightening scenes of tension and occasional terror, this production succeeds in bringing to life the characters drawn so clearly in the pages of the novel. Estella, in one scene, changes her appearance from child to woman while tossing individual roses to a Pip who stands enthralled by the lady who he later describes as “part of myself”. She also mirrors herself towards the end when she rotates in a circle just as her music box doll figure did when she first played with the blacksmith’s apprentice.

I was particularly taken by the use of recorded music and song to help along the earlier scenes where Pip and Estella meet, and with the tinkling accompaniment to Miss Havisham’s final fiery fate. On the acting side, there is excellent work throughout, with Matthew Wade’s simple and steady Joe, Peter Rae’s cursed Magwitch, Denise Moreno’s steely Estella, Helen Bang’s “Baby Jane”-ish Miss Havisham, and Samuel Lawrence’s enthusiastic Pip particularly effective.

Pip and Estella in Great Expectations
Pip and Estella in Great Expectations

With two acts of 65 and 30 minutes respectively, I feel this production may have worked better without an interval, which only serves to take the audience out of what is a finely crafted piece of theatre, but there are many compensations to be had – a black as ink raven presiding over the proceedings, a delicately balanced revelation about Estella’s parentage which is straight out of the penny dreadful of plots, a devastating ending.

Great Expectations continues at the Playground Theatre on Latimer Road until 29 December. I would urge you to take a look if you would like to see an alternative Dickens (I’ll also be seeing The Signalman over at the Old Red Lion in Islington in the New Year).

Photo credits Panayis Chrysovergis.

LouReviews received a complimentary ticket to see Great Expectations.