Review: Great Expectations, Buxton Opera House

Dickens’ story is one of the greatest in the English language and is recalled often for the character of Miss Havisham (Nichola McAuliffe) the abandoned bride who never recovers from the trauma. Indeed she dominates the striking poster promoting this fine and sensitive production. It is surprising, then, how small her role is here – she becomes something of an eccentric curiosity a relatively peripheral figure in the life of a man whose deepest relationships are with other men.

The transformation of Pip from a naive country boy to a successful man in commerce is convincingly told. In other dramatisations much is made of Pip’s period of drunkenness and financial recklessness but in Ken Bentley’s adaptation other themes are more central. As he and Tilted Wig Productions director, Sophie Boyce Couzens, make clear in the programme notes what appeals most to them about Great Expectations is the timelessness of the issues it raises and the continuing relevance of the story in 2018.

Social division, poverty, criminal injustice, snobbery – these concerned Dickens 150 years ago and they remain part of our social fabric today. In the relationships Pip (Sean Aydon) has with Joe (Edward Ferrow), Herbert (James Camp), Jaggers (James Dinsmore) and Magwitch (Daniel Goode) different aspects of friendship and companionship are explored. The love Pip has for Estella (Isla Carter) is of another order. That is a love based on a compelling fascination for someone who is unobtainable rather than born of substantial shared experiences.

The world of Great Expectations is frequently dark – interestingly for this production there is no attempt to recreate the mist, the partial world of the marshes where Pip encounters Magwitch. The scene where Miss Havisham leaves us is, however, effective high drama. Dickens was persuaded to provide a second, more hopeful, ending to the story. For some this may ring false – but to hope requires bravery and sometimes that should be rewarded.

Tilted Wig is a new company but has brought together a skilled, hard working and flexible team. Eliza Collins, for example, is excellent in seven different roles including Mrs Joe, a pub drunk and judge. James Turner has designed a simple, compact set  – essentially a cube – which, as he notes, is almost a playground because of the use of ladders enabling actors and the musician (Ollie King) to work outside of the structure. The use of folky live music provides the opportunity for some brief dance and song which offer social, external counterpoints to Pip’s periods of personal anxiety.

Great Expectations is on at Buxton until April 7 and is on tour through until June. Tilted Wig will always be welcome visitors to Buxton.

By Keith Savage