Review: Great Expectations – Dundee Rep

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First published in The Times, Tuesday June 16 2015

Four Stars

Stage and screen adaptations of Dickens have tended to emphasise the epic scale of the author’s novels. The 15-part Bleak House for BBC television is a case in point, as is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s nine-hour version of Nicholas Nickleby from 1980. But this revival of Jo Clifford’s adaptation of Great Expectations for Dundee Rep and Perth’s Horsecross Arts is one of those rare things: a literary adaptation that abridges the novel’s sprawl without losing sight of the author’s themes of class, social mobility, love and hope.

Clifford’s script, created in collaboration with Glasgow’s TAG company back in 1988, employs a framing device in which the older, wiser Pip (Thomas Cotran) looks back on the events of his life in the company of Estella (Millie Turner). In Jemima Levick’s production this subjective first-person narrative finds physical expression in Becky Minto’s set design, a labyrinth of empty picture frames, through which the characters wander like ghosts, with the whole production lent a hazy dream-like quality by Mike Robertson’s lighting.

Great Expectations Dundee Rep Ensemble and Horsecross Arts

Pic: Tommy Ga Ken Wan

The emotional atmosphere is also greatly enhanced by a haunting live soundtrack, composed and performed by David Paul Jones, that tracks the changes in mood from major to minor and incorporates songs ranging from the blacksmiths’ ditty Hammer Boys Round Old Clem to a poignant rendition of the Mama Cass classic Dream a Little Dream of Me. Meanwhile, some unobtrusive passages of movement by Emily-Jane Boyle neatly evoke Pip’s transitions from child to youth and from blacksmith’s apprentice to gentleman.

The ensemble is only eight-strong but by the end of the running time you feel as though all of humanity has passed before your eyes. Actors David Delve and Antony Strachan bring a recognisably Dickensian quality to a range of the author’s larger-than-life characters, including Jaggers, the obsessive-compulsive lawyer, and Pip’s big-hearted brother-in-law, Joe Gargery. Ann Louise Ross as Miss Havisham is wraith-like in her tattered wedding gown yet hardened in her resolve to pass on her hatred of men. Turner captures Estella’s mix of hauteur and vulnerability while Cotran, playing Pip from boy to man, convincingly rings the changes with a strong, sympathetic performance.

At more than two-and-a-half hours the piece is perhaps a shade too long with the ending in particular a little drawn-out. Overall, though, the balance of storytelling and atmosphere in Levick’s production is virtually flawless, resulting in an evening of theatre that is as moving as it is compelling.

 Box office: 01382 223530, to June 20; transferring to Perth Concert Hall, June 23-27 (01738 621031)

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