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Great Expectations. By Charles Dickens, adapted by James Maxwell. Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre.

James Maxwell's stage adaptation opens with Charles Dickens's Pip in a fever. The delirium causes him to retrace his steps mentally, JJ uncovering his life beginning with the terrifying boyhood encounter with the escaped prisoner, Magwitch.

Audiences share the journey of the novel's children, Pip and Estella.

Director Jacob Murray sees Pip growing up, a flawed Everyman encountering the world, making decisions - and mistakes. By the end "he's misjudged virtually everyone in his life - Joe, Biddy, Herbert" - blinded by the social snobbery which convinces him his fortune comes from the rich Miss Havisham. Only finally does he learn to value people for who they really are. The key thing about Pip is that he can learn, unlike other characters who don't have this capacity, or are destroyed by what they learn - such as Miss Havisham, who ultimately realises her life's error and acknowledges that revenge is destructive.

"The novel is full of regrets and self-reproach," Murray observes. Estella, trained by Miss Havisham to break men's hearts, is 18 before she can confess, "I have no heart", while Pip only realises he has an arrogant side when his real benefactor, Magwitch, is dying. Then, the young man gives his possessions away and spends a decade in effective exile before meeting Estella again. Yet Pip tries to do what's right as he understands it; the development of that understanding is something readers, and audiences, share as the story proceeds.

A stage adaptation alters our perspective of Estella. Dickens shows her entirely through Pip's eyes; an actor has to give her independent life.

This could emphasise a similarity: like Pip, she is an orphan brought up in ignorance of who she is. They share a sense of being a special person.

Estella is Havisham's creation, as Pip is Magwitch's; both must free themselves of these imposed self-images. One of the novel's major themes is that it is impossible to live one's life through someone else.

Though, like David Copperfield, a first-person narration, the novel has wider concerns: sexual obsession and - less surprisingly - how society treats the poor and criminals. Magwitch, being poor and a man, suffers more under the criminal code than his female and richer male confederates.

In focusing on the narrative, the adaptation cuts some purely comic characters, but there's plenty of humour in what is left, Murray insists.

He insists, too, that Dickens never created totally unsympathetic characters, even speaking up for the formidable Mrs Joe, the more consistent terror of Pip's childhood. She is, Murray argues, frustrated, and stressed as she seeks to make ends meet. "Her own expectations have been thwarted, marrying a poor blacksmith. She's a working-class Miss Havisham."

February 25 to April 10. Monday-Friday 7.30pm; Saturday 8pm; matinees Wednesday 2.30pm and Saturday 4pm. Tel: 0161 833 9833

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