When it comes to the opening scene of Great Expectations, rarely do you expect to be greeted by anything other than the bleak marshlands described in the initial pages of Charles Dickens’ 19th century novel, where Pip first encounters the fearful Abel Magwitch.
This is not the case in Graham McClaren’s touring production currently playing at London’s Vaudeville theatre, which goes against our usual expectations by turning the chronology of Dickens’ classic tale on its head.
We wouldn’t usually have even met Miss Havisham, let alone known about her death in the opening stages of the story, but, as middle-aged Pip begins to tell his tale, we are plunged straight into the miserable abode of the lonely spinster. Standing within the decaying grandeur of her manor house, Pip begins to relive his journey from poor deprived orphan to eligible gentleman through a series of flashbacks; the older version of himself looking on from a distance, providing short sections of retrospective narration that reflect the first person perspective of the original novel.
All of the action takes place within the walls of Satis House, where the chandeliers are sheathed in cobwebs, the tarnished wedding cake lies festering on the dirt-covered table and the actors become partially concealed by the haze of dust floating in the stale air of the dining room. You can almost smell the must spilling into the auditorium.
Changes of mood and location are reflected in Kai Fischer’s lighting, which fades from cold blue to warm red as the story shifts from Pip’s hostile encounters with Paula Wilcox’s icy spinster to his affectionate relationship with Josh Elwell’s sensitive Joe.
Wilcox is a suitably haunted Miss Havisham, while Grace Rowe channels a strong fiery independence into her performance as her adopted daughter Estella. Jack Ellis conjures a classic patriarchal Dickensian figure as egotistical money-grabbing lawyer Jaggers, Chris Ellison, as Pip’s mysterious benefactor Magwitch, has both the menace and dignity of Dickens’ notorious convict, and James Vaughan’s performance strays from the prolific writer’s well-known tale into another Victorian classic, bestowing an element of the Mad Hatter to his performance as the eccentric Mr Wopsle.
Taylor Jay-Davies makes for a naïve and vulnerable young Pip, while Paul Nivison’s role as the narrator allows us crucial glimpses of Dickens’ epic novel like the weekly periodicals in which it was originally published.