Tariq Jordan (left) as Pip; Jude Akuwudike as Magwitch • picture: Robert Day

Great Expectations

1st March 2011

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

Great Expectations is at Watford Palace Theatre until 3 March

it is – to my mind – a great shame that Watford Palace Theatre’s first production in several months (I exclude Aladdin) should be an adaptation. Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations is well-known, and well-loved of course, and its popularity might deliver box office success – but it seems a cheat’s way to get an audience, and pretty well guaranteed to disappoint. There’s a reason why books are books and plays are plays.

Dickens is about the writing as much as the characterisation and plot; you can’t achieve that in a stage version. Everyone who has read the novel must have their own ideas about how the characters look and move and speak; the Palace cast won’t be the people you imagine. Anyone who doesn’t know the book at all isn’t going to get much idea from this incarnation either. Certainly, some of the essence of Great Expectations is here, but, while huge chunks of the plot are necessarily omitted, Tanika Gupta sets her adaptation in rural India and Calcutta, in 1861, and adds an element that isn’t there in the novel: race. It’s a curious decision – you’d think that there was enough in the roughly 500 pages of the original – but by her own admission she is ‘obsessed with the British in India’, and saw this as a perfect opportunity to explore the influence of the Raj on the education of ‘Indians of good families’.

Oh dear. The introduction of a theme not even hinted at in the novel serves only to diminish the original story, and leads to some really clunky language, in which Gupta has to point out what she’s doing: “The English lady? The one who owns all the land round here?”, for example, and “Those white foreigners… they treat youngsters like Pip really badly. Remember what they did to Ram’s boy?” It would be depressingly basic even if those themes were there in Dickens . Given that they’re not, it’s plain ridiculous.

The production is certainly beautifully staged – fabulous set; fantastic lighting – but overall it’s… pedestrian. It lacks energy, it lacks pace, and some of the acting, especially in the second half, is heavy-handed. The northern accents in which Pip’s family and neighbours speak, and which Pip loses as he becomes ‘educated’, feel crude and unnecessary. It’s all a bit unsubtle.

This Great Expectations is a real disappointment. I wanted to like it; I even (what possessed me?) thought that transferring it to India might work, but that was before I realised the liberties that Gupta was going to take. It’s only a few moments from the rise of the curtain until you’re thinking ‘why?’. The melodrama that works so well on the page simply doesn’t work on the stage. Just read the book...

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