Squeezing Pips

25th November 1994 at 00:00
Great Expectations, Adapted from the Charles Dickens novel by Robert Shearman Northcott Theatre, Exeter.

Geoff Fox on a brave try at compressing Dickens onto the stage. It's probably a better evening if you don't know the novel, or can at least surrender to a different experience. Despite its three-hours duration, there is no time here for any digression: it must have grieved adaptor Robert Shearman to leave out Mr Wopsle's Hamlet. The satisfactions of this evening rest chiefly with the plot, played out in the shadow of designer Kit Surrey's massive black gallows.

John Durnin's programme note suggests that Dickens would have had much to say about Thatcher's Britain; his production focuses upon the divisiveness of class and money, so that in the closing scene Pip tells Estella that, as Herbert's employee, he can no longer enjoy his friendship.

Where the novel reveals the eroding, insidious nature of Pip's decline, and his slowly won redemption, the moral seduction into heartless yuppiedom has to be swiftly established on the stage, notably through Joe's excruciating visit to Barnard's Inn.

Great Expectations depends, for its ironic effects and the sense of wisdom derived from bitter experience, upon the reflective voice of a first person narrative. No possibility then, for the driving energy of a narrating chorus in the RSC Nicholas Nickleby mode. Richard Atlee's Pip is on stage virtually throughout. When he is watching over his youthful self, the gently affectionate tone works well; the self-critical voice outside the action once the adult Pip takes over proves more difficult to sustain.

Many of the best moments are provided by the community chorus of amateurs - perhaps because here the play ran free of the novel. There are memorable stylised images - Pip pursued by a choric conscience over the marshes, the conflagration of Miss Havisham among a whirl of flambeaus.

They can't quite conjure up the seediness of London - more Quality Street than Little Britain. The lawyer's office, however, offered some splendid exchanges - Dickens's caricature of language and gesture make for good theatre. There is time only for a glimpse of Wemmick's Walworth Castle and his Aged P. More's the pity, for the production needed the counterpoint of these sunlit episodes.

Running time two hours 45 minutes. Box office: 0392 54853. Until December 3.

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