Stage Review: Great Expectations – never realizes its full potential

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According to Wikipedia, Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations has been adapted for the stage and screen over 250 times.  Adding to this already large number is the Errol Durbach adaptation currently on stage at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre.  But while Durbach does an honest job in adapting Dickens’ tome for the stage, this Blackbird Theatre / Persephone Theatre production felt all of its two and a half hours.

For those that might not be familiar with this classic, it is the first-person account of a young orphan named Pip and his rise from blacksmith’s nephew to English gentleman in the 1800s.  Along the way, Pip meets the young Estella, adopted daughter of spinster Miss Havisham and falls madly in love with her.  Thrust into his new world as a gentleman by an unknown benefactor, Pip soon realizes that money can’t buy you happiness.

While admittedly a simplistic synopsis of what is arguably one of Dickens’ most enduring and famous works, there is not enough room here to cover the intricacies of this sprawling novel.  If you have not had an opportunity to read it you can find a good synopsis on Wikipedia, although it is not necessary to know the story before seeing this stage adaptation.

In his re-telling of the story, Durbach uses the older Pip (Robert Moloney) as narrator in helping to set the stage for his later life.  Unfortunately, for the first half hour the two actors playing both the younger Pip and the young Estella (Jordan Wessels and Madelin Prekaski) are just not up to the level of their adult counterparts.

Both Moloney as the older Pip and Anthony F. Ingram as his friend Herbert Pocket bring each of their own characters to life, others seem unable to match them.  As one example, Susan Williamson’s Miss Havsham spirals into so much melodrama that the audience laughs at the point where she dies from the fiery flames of the candles on the table of her never-used wedding feast.

Given its locale and time, accents also seem to get the better of some of the actors and I found myself straining on a number of occasions to understand what they were saying.  Some of the actors also found themselves falling into the trap of raising their voices thinking that would somehow allow the accent to be more clearly understood but instead makes them sound shrill.

Cast of the Blackbird Theatre and Persephone Theatre production of Great Expectations
Robert Moloney Kent Allen and Anthony Ingram in the Blackbird Theatre / Persephone Theatre production of Great Expectations.

Associate Director Johnna Wright, who takes over from the original director H. John Wright in this particular production, does her best to help move us through a story of this magnitude quickly but I couldn’t help but it all needed major tightening. She must also take much of the responsibility for the weaker performances.

Robert Gardiner’s projections were one of the bright notes in the production and were spectacular additions to his simple set.  With the use projected images on large curtains, we moved from the Havisham mansion to Pip’s London neighbourhood with relative ease.  The central bridge set piece, which I assume was meant to illustrate the connection Pip has between his two lives, was effective although it did tend towards sounding hollow as actors walked across it.  In one scene though, seemingly plucked directly from a production of Phantom of the Opera, ultimately felt a little out of place.

The expectations were certainly high for this production as Durbach’s Falstaff at Bard on the Beach last year landed on my top ten list.  It also clocked in at three hours.  Unfortunately, this production never seems to realize the full potential of its source material.

2 1/2 out of 5 Stars Great Expectations

By Charles Dickens.  Adapted for the stage by Errol Durbach.  A Blackbird Theatre Company co-production with Persephone Theatre.  On stage at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre through February 19, 2011.

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