Last night’s December chill was an apt preface to Attic Theatre’s atmospheric production of Great Expectations in the newly-opened Merton Arts Space. After gulping down my first gingerbread latte of the season in one of the most surreal spaces to find a theatre – a library reference room – I was ready to take in some equally surreal Dickens macabre. Oh how I love British eccentricity.
Having witnessed some cringeworthy local theatre productions in my time as a reviewer, I approached this adaptation cautiously. I was pleasantly surprised. The cast’s performances were anything but amateur, and I was reassured whilst reading the programme that what I was watching, in the room where I once revised for my GCSEs, was a who’s who of talented actors. “LAMDA, Guildhall, Rose Theatre…”. My question was, what on earth were they all doing here?
Louise Hill’s direction let the cast down by a little boring. Great Expectations has been revised again and again, and I expected more from a trained director like Hill than what was offered. From a compliantly terrifying opening scene, I settled into the comfort of watching a novel I know well, performed exactly as I know it. A cuddly, cosy, Bridget Jones of a production. Spoiler alert – it’s not Miss Haversham. Yawn.
I don’t want to sound too ‘eye-roll’-y here, as there were elements of the production that I really appreciated. I greatly enjoyed the lighting effects – painfully cold white lights for the convict scenes, dim Victorian gas lamps to create a sense of gloom and isolation in that opening scene, and Estella’s sole light of false hope leading Pip through Miss Haversham’s house. Hill also capitalised on performing in the round well, with the clever use of cast whispers surrounding the audience, emphasising the oppressive nature of Pip’s past and crises of conscience. Some moments really gave me chills.
Some moments, however, were unforgivable. Tom Chapman’s coolly discerning Pip was wasted on navigating clumsy metaphorical props (books – for a Dickens adaptation, how sophisticated). Derek Howard’s grizzly Magwitch was brilliantly chilling, but stationary moments in a performance in the round means grizzly voices don’t carry. Sorry Derek, we couldn’t understand you.
Possibly the most offensive to me, however, as a costume designer, was Miss Haversham not appearing in a wedding dress when Pip first meets her. In a completely true-to-form production, this is simply not acceptable on the grounds that ‘she’s playing someone else in a minute’. Tough. Find a way around it. Pip’s description of her as “the strangest woman he had ever seen” loses its impact when confronted with an elderly woman in standard Victorian dress. Why is every adaptation of GE, theatre or TV, so afraid of attempting her baffling appearance in detail? It is a childhood dream of mine that someone might recreate Miss Haversham’s spidery, dusty, wedding banquet one day before my very eyes, but alas no one has tried.
Overall, this was a safe performance, well-acted and enjoyable enough for an entertaining night of local theatre, but it was not anything to write home about. If you want a clear, family-friendly performance of Dickens, this is it. Two girls left the show saying, “now I don’t need to read the book for GCSE!”, which says it all really.