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Review: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre

PUBLISHED: 17:27 09 May 2018

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

Archant

Life, with its many twists and turns, can also be quite long, discovers Katie Jarvis

You remember that evening, don’t you, in the marshland of Kent? You know - that evening when you were sitting staring at your late parents’ tombstones, wondering (tragically, they died when you were a babe) what on earth they must have looked like. And then, (most unexpectedly!), that starving, desperate, dangerous criminal – hampered (but not as much as you’d like) by fearsome, heavy, life-sapping leg-irons – leaped out at you! You remember that sheer gibbering, muscle-loosening terror you experienced! The blood pounding round your frail body; the heart bouncing out of your chest as that ragged, mudded desperado threatened to cut your throat; turned you upside down to shake the bread out of your pocket before stuffing it into his mouth as if it were your very bones he’d like to chew upon.

Of course you remember it! You were pipping terrified!

And then there were the long days in between when nothing much happened.

You don’t remember those, do you!

Hold on to that thought.

__________________________________________________

The programme for this production of Great Expectations – presented by Tilted Wig and Malvern Theatres – is nothing short of gorgeous. Looks like the sort of non-Penguin version of a Dickens classic that would make your sitting room seem dead posh.

What it says to me – quick as a flash – is that this is a production intending to be utterly authentic to Dickens, possibly the world’s greatest-ever storyteller. Pipped only by the Bible (not counting Leviticus. (Obviously.)).

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Everyman Theatre, CheltenhamGreat Expectations by Charles Dickens, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

And, indeed, as the action unfolds on the Everyman stage, there are some crackingly Dickensian scenes. Such as when Magwitch (a brilliant Daniel Goode) and Pip (Séan Aydon – great as an adult) first meet in that burial-ground: gloom and claustrophobia shrouding the land as heavily as mist over marsh.

Or the glorious moment when the stage opens to reveal the insane whiteness of Miss Haversham’s (wonderful Nichola McAuliffe) dazzlingly decaying life: cloudy-mirrored walls providing partial reflections of a life that never was.

These make the magic madness of a story I first devoured as a child, so gripped that I shone a torch under bedclothes way after lights-out.

And – my! – there was some excellent acting. Even when (pretty confusingly, I must say) actors had to change character at the drop of a hat (actually, without even the drop of a hat; the costume-changes were minimal). Even if I was left occasionally baffled, they seemed to cope admirably.

But – and here’s the down-note (you knew this was coming) - the problem with being true to Dickens is this: the stage is not the page. Dickens wrote serials with plenty of snap, crackle and pop; but these rice-krispie scenes were interspersed with occasional scenes of such mind-numbing shredded-wheat boredom that even people who insist on reading every word couldn’t tell you a single one of them. Even after reading the paragraph five times.

I’m more than willing to sit through a theatre show that lasts from 7.30pm until nearly 10.30pm (with interval, during which I downed a large glass of white in the same way Magwitch tore at his bread); but only if it’s justified. Where was the editor on this?!? Magwitch’s explanation of his missing years (great actor notwithstanding) makes the second scene of the Tempest look as exciting as a clip from Mad Max: Fury Road. We didn’t come to see Pinter; we came to see a story – full of mad twists – that needs to be ruthlessly cut for the stage (in my view).

If I’m going to get picky (which clearly I am), then I also loved Pip’s adult incarnation but wanted – after a couple of minutes – to put my fingers in my ears when he shrilled out his early lines as a child. (To be fair, I can see the problem of the same actor playing a seven-year-old on into adulthood.) Some of the other diction was difficult to hear, too – but literally so.

And then there was the set: gloomy scaffolding (couldn’t we have had a brighter backdrop for Pip’s years of success?), which actors clambered around, up and down, in a way an intellectual reviewer would have found meaningful and inventive. I’m not intellectual.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Everyman Theatre, CheltenhamGreat Expectations by Charles Dickens, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

And, finally, the array of narrators. Surely a narrator is there to pass quickly over the boring bits so the actors can concentrate on the action? We seemed, at times, in the worst of all worlds: a fair bit of narration followed by those ‘long days in between when nothing much happened’. (Please see intro.)

Oh, I feel mean! These actors did a terrific job. Their memories must be prodigious. But there were times when I felt as if the whole book were being read out to me by Alistair Darling.

And so, when the end came; when Pip sees no shadow of another parting; I, disappointingly, just saw bed.

Great Expectations will be running from Tuesday May 8 - Saturday May 12 at the Everyman Theatre, Regent St, Cheltenham.

For more information, and to book tickets, visit the website here.

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