Great Expectations – Watford Palace Theatre

They say there’s no point in reinventing the wheel but in their adaptation of Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations, English Touring Theatre has succeeded admirably.

Great Expectations is a classic rite of passage saga, looking at poverty, class and the desire to escape traditional roles. Tanika Gupta’s reimagining of the tale, moving it from 1840s England to the 1860s Raj therefore seems strangely apt and makes you think why nobody has thought of it before.

In ETT’s production Pip is now a 12 year old poor village boy being brought up by his sister. Given the chance to visit reclusive Englishwoman Miss Haversham, he falls in love with her adopted niece and house keeper Estelle. So Pip begins on a path to shed not only his old impoverished life but, in doing, so his own cultural identity, shedding his Indian heritage to become an respectable English gentleman.

This updated scenario could easily turn into a lecture on racism but, once one becomes accustomed to the marriage of this familiar tale with an unusual setting, it becomes an engrossing and enlightening look at class, race and culture.

It’s an epic vista of a production; 31 scenes told with a cinematic fluidity. Much of this fluidity and atmosphere is created by Colin Richmond’s evocative set, a ghostly image of a faded Raj glory, and a series of drapes to conceal or reveal scenes as required. Add in Nikki Wells’ evocative underscore with Lee Curran’s lighting and you could easily be on the banks of the Ganges.

At the heart of the piece is a wonderfully detailed performance from Tariq Jordan as Pip. From child to manhood, Jordan portrays Pip with a sense of innocence and humanity, even during his darkest moments. There are also strong performances from Lynn Farleigh – almost decaying in front of our eyes – as Miss Haversham, and from a icily cool Simone James as Estella. It is, however, a strong ensemble company with detailed and convincing performances throughout.

Director Nikolai Foster manages to maintain pace despite the epic feel and large number of scenes.

Some may find the relocation a step too far for Dickens but, as a master of entertainment, surely he would be delighted to see the large number of young people in the audience gripped by the sheer emotion of his work.

Perhaps it is best not to think of this as a staging of a classic but rather as a new work that will inspire people to visit the original source material. And isn’t that the true potential of theatre?

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