Saturday, 27 October 2012

Great Expectations at the Darlington Civic Theatre

Great Expectations
Darlington Civic Theatre

The Dickens bicentenary is drawing to a close. Over the last 11 months I have attended Dickens exhibitions at the British Library and the Museum of London and enjoyed two related performances by the inimitable Simon Callow (A Christmas Carol and his talk on Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World).

Next week I am off to see Oliver! for the second time but before that I had the great pleasure of seeing my favourite Dickens adventure brought to glorious life on stage at the Darlington Civic.

Great Expectations was really where my love of Dickens began. The 1981 TV series introduced me to a wonderful world of extraordinary and highly eccentric characters. Over the weeks, they baffled, bemused, amused and enlightened me. The twists in the plot, coupled with the motivation and circumstances of the amazing characters, slowly revealed to the audience over many weeks, as the onion-like layers were peeled away, fuelled my imagination and made me hungry for more of the same.

Stratford Johns and Joan Hickson were my first Magwitch and Miss Havisham respectively. There would be many others.

In short, the series instilled in me a fascination of Dickens and his works that has stayed with me until the present day.

I was intrigued when I first heard the play was touring. How could the key scenes (Magwitch on the marshes, Joe Gargery's visit to Pip in London and Miss Havisham in flames to name but three) possibly be transferred to the stage?

As we took our seats, the curtains were already open and the magnificent set of Miss Havisham's room was on display. It was good to be able to spend time absorbing the fantastic detail before the start of the play. Holes in the wall and cobwebs galore had reduced the once-great room to a broken ruin. Light, streaming through the holes, picked out endless amounts of swirling and rising dust.

The opening moments of the play revealed the framing device. An adult Pip (Paul Nivison) appeared with Estella (Grace Rowe) and despite their very apparent fears they resolved to ''Open the doors and let in the light.'' As soon as they did so, characters from their former lives scurried about the room before vanishing silently and mysteriously (some of them into giant mouse holes in the wainscoting).

The story of the past gradually unfolded through the eyes of Pip. Young Pip (Taylor Jay-Davis) started his incredible journey with his scary meeting with Magwitch  (Chris Ellison) and it became clear how the key scenes would be recreated: through very clever lighting and the judicious application of dry ice. Adult Pip shadowed Young Pip's actions, sometimes even silently mouthing the words of his younger self as he kept in the background.

Thereafter, a plethora of astonishing characters took their turns in the thick of the action: Miss Havisham (Paula Wilcox), Joe Gargery (Steve North), Jaggers (Jack Ellis) and the most grotesque of all - a wonderfully over the top Wopsle (James Vaughan).

I doubt I need to run through the whole story; you surely know it well enough. Suffice to say that everyone was on top form and the production delivered some unexpected touches, such as the flames signalling Miss Havisham's denouement and the special effects that surprisingly inhabited the large mirror during the latter phases.

Being a later Dickens, Great Expectations is - despite comic touches - a dark offering, leaving ''All of us bent and broken.''

Jo Clifford should be congratulated on adapting such a busy novel into two wonderfully effective halves.

Great Expectations is heading for the West End after its nationwide tour. Don't hesitate to seize tickets for this marvellous play if the opportunity comes your way.

Keep an eye on the official website for tour dates and previews.

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