Great Expectations (theatre review) – Bakehouse lives up to the perils of ambition

“Love her, love her, love her! If she favours you, love her. If she wounds you, love her. If she tears your heart to pieces – and as it gets older and stronger, it will tear deeper – love her, love her, love her!”

Miss Havisham.

Great Expectations is my favourite Dickens – I love the idea of Miss Havisham.  I think she is one of the most fascinating and astounding characters to ever grace a book. So it was very eagerly that I trundled along to the performance on Saturday night by the Bakehouse Theatre Company. Like, I am guessing, many others, I was really interested to see how a such an enormous, throbbing book would translate to the stage without resorting to all that musical “stuff” that tugs so easily at the heart-strings. I am ashamed to say I had never heard of Nick Ormerod and Declan Donnellan’s adaptation that came out in 2005, so I was lucky enough to enter this production with no knowledge of any particulars other than the book.

“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.”

The adaptation is adventurous and energetic. The entire cast, all fifteen on stage together almost all the time, acting as a conscience chorus that serves to keep the audience abreast of Pip’s thoughts which form the narrative, are all exuberant, playful and light. Unified “thumps” “slaps” and “ooohs” across the stage form emphasis for punches, tears and fears so that the perpetual motion of the enormous script never gets bogged down in its own size. The stage sports a large elevated disc, allowing cast members to rise up through suitcases, or a ghostly Miss Havisham look down on the proceedings beneath her. Props are clever and kept to a minimum – mostly suitcases that serve as tombstones or are  filled with the trappings of wealth, a bar or a legal office. Except for Estella and Miss Havisham, the cast are dressed in black pants, white shirt and dark coloured braces in a nod to a Dickensiean style. Characters remain androgynous till they step forward to fill their role, donning an apron, a vest or a top hat to allow their character to burst forth.

“In a word, I was too cowardly to do what I knew to be right, as I had been too cowardly to avoid doing what I knew to be wrong.”

Minimalism is the key to holding tight the reigns of so ambitious a project. The only thing as big as Dickens’s novel here is the acting and the marvellous direction.  Fifteen people on a small stage, dominated by a large disc move fluidly around each other, simulating at this moment a graveyard, then a tavern, then a busy London street  Performers stand in the wings which are still on stage flawlessly controlling the energy toward the current moment of action. The pace here is fast. There is a great deal to pack into the almost two-hour long show. John Harrison never loses control of an ocean teeming with narrative. In the tiny space of a couple of meters at the front of the stage, one is completely convinced of being in an upper room, a societal parlour or a dark musty corridor preparing to bump into Estella and Miss Havisham.

“Once for all; I knew to my sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.”

All it takes is the lowering of a ghostly chandelier,  a woman behind a white mosquito net and John Harrison, with the talented Jacki Mison on the end of his strings to convince us of the enigmatic and morally terrifying Miss Havisham. The two work so well together here, Harrison’s movements against the backdrop of Mison’s deep throaty pitiless boom. To see Mison pressing against the fish net, the veil, the fear, is as chilling as it is captivating. Between scenes she remains at the top of the disc, elevated, observing, sentient and selfish beyond the bounds of reason. Hovering around the base of the disc is her puppet Estella played by Shannon Ashlyn, a ghost of a woman herself, a female nurtured only into viciousness and devoid of any kindness. Ashlyn is appropriately beautiful, unreachable and as proud as Estella is purported to be.

“The broken heart. You think you will die, but you just keep living, day after day after terrible day.”

The two Pips, Callum McManis as the younger and Patrick Sherwood as the elder each do a fine job with the title roles, well supported by a cast that will call out their feelings behind them. McManis does a great job, growing up before our eyes as Pip becomes a man and then turning into a man as part of the chorus. It must be a rather strange and lonely experience to be the only child on a set like this one, but he holds his own very well. The entire cast is wonderful.  Strong, funny, witty and articulate despite the pace and the complexity of accents.

It’s a fabulous production, and one well worth getting along to see before it is gone.

Great Expectations is on at the atyp studio in Walsh Bay: Season: 31 October – 17 November

Buy your tickets here.