Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Great Expectations - Liverpool Playhouse

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Director: Tim Baker
Reviewer: Marie Kenny

What a difference a day makes. One day you could be contemplating a life of poverty. The next day, someone mysterious could come along with a bag full of cash and want to turn your life around. Now, wouldn’t that be nice?

Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ is a classic ‘rags to riches’ story, with some unrequited love thrown in there too. Adapted to the stage by Tim Baker, the novel is condensed into a two hour production which is easy to follow, quite an achievement for such a big story. Along with composer Dyfan Jones, Baker’s intention was to add a new layer to the story through music and song. Musical director and pianist, Greg Palmer is a permanent fixture to the side of the stage and plays some lovely pieces. However, whether they all actually fit is another matter.

Set against a backdrop of dark clouds and candles along the front of the stage, the staging is very simple and yet atmospheric for 19th century England. Along the back there are eight seats for the actors to watch the performance from and step into the action when required to do so. This ensures a smooth flow to the piece and creates an interesting vision, with excellent costume design by Mark Bailey. When brought together onstage there are some truly beautiful musical ensemble pieces from the cast.

Pip, played by Steven Meo, narrates the piece and also plays his part in a series of flashback scenes, from a childhood encounter with escaped convict Magwitch to his continuing love as an adult for Estella. He is transformed from a blacksmith’s apprentice into a London gentleman, which has it’s own problems. Yet, I didn’t really care about them or his plight. Perhaps this was due to the ever-approaching distraction of the next song. Hard to tell.

Vivien Parry takes on the role of Miss Havisham, the decaying, jilted bride, who lives a life of perpetual devastation and heartbreak. Her hatred towards men extends to her training her adopted daughter, Estella to deliberately break Pip’s heart. Unfortunately, these scenes in particular are really not enhanced by the addition of music. Instead it feels like Miss Havisham becomes more of a caricature and consequently any heartbreak I should have been focusing on, was replaced by me hoping it wouldn’t turn into song, which, of course, it inevitably did.

Some light relief and amusement comes from Simon Watts, playing Pip’s friend Herbert. He fills his song with an energy that works and functions to bring the story along. Likewise, a touching performance from Steffan Rhodri as Joe gives us a glimpse of perhaps what Baker had intended the music to achieve.

This production benefits from an extremely tight and talented cast, but it’s caught somewhere between a musical and classic prose. Great Expectations is an ambitious experiment with inconsistent results.

Photos: Catherine Ashmore
Great Expectations runs at the Liverpool Playhouse until Sat 28th March 09
frontpage hit counter