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Great Expectations exceeds all expectations

Review by Carol Middleton

Published September 02 -

Great Expectations

Melbourne Theatre Company

Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre

Charles Dickens’ famous story of a blacksmith’s son with ‘great expectations’ has taken to the stage with all the fire and brilliance of a pageant. In the spirit of Baz Luhrmann’s “Spectacular, Spectacular” or the Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremony, Simon Phillips, Artistic Director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, has taken the immortal story of Pip and rekindled it with colour, sound and a fine troupe of actors.

Charles Dickens, best known as a novelist, was also an actor. He had a passion for the theatre from an early age, but his few plays were never a success. His novels, on the other hand, are full of high drama, and his colourful characters are ready to leap off the page on to the stage with script in hand. As writer/director of this latest Dickens adaptation, Simon Phillips uses his dramatic skills to invest Dickens posthumously with cachet as a playwright.

Phillips was editing right up to Opening Night, which started late as the cast assimilated the new cuts in this four-hour, three-act marathon. He addressed the audience before the performance, apologising for the delayed start and the rough stitching of the ensemble, which was almost impossible to rehearse in its entirety.

There were a couple of stumbled lines, but nothing to daunt the enthusiasm of cast and audience for this energetic performance. And what more could you expect on the first night from sixteen actors playing innumerable characters as well as horses, boats and candlesticks? Disbelief was willingly suspended as the stage came to life with so much talent taking so many shapes, bringing more freshness, freedom and mobility than I have experienced in previous MTC productions.

At the beginning of Act One, the layered, slate-coloured stage is transformed by lights, smoke and soundscape into the marshes where Pip is to meet the convict who changes his life. The stage set remains the same throughout the play, with constant shifts of light and sound to create outdoor settings with silhouettes of horses and carriages against the skyline, the confines of Miss Havisham’s sunless mansion, or the bleak London office of Mr Jaggers.

Although the book provides each character with his own stage-ready dialogue, the story is told by Pip, starting from his perspective as a child. Phillips moves the story along by handing out bite-sized chunks of Pip’s narrative to the other actors, standing in shadow above the main action. The scenes are punctuated by sound and lighting effects, skilfully synchronised for full dramatic impact.

The cast, a rich mix of new and veteran actors, then take the limelight as the vivid creatures of Dickens’ imagination. We are regaled with Bob Hornery’s Pumblechook and the Aged P, Monica Maughan’s Camilla Pocket and Mrs Coiler and above all by the exuberantly unbearable Julie Forsyth’s Mrs Joe and beautifully silly Miss Skiffins. Simon Aylott also makes his mark in his debut with the MTC, with a hilarious entrance as the pale young Herbert Pocket spoiling for a fight.

The less comic characters are played with great authenticity. Richard Piper as Joe Gargery, the blacksmith, has the warmth, honesty and humility of the original, and Angela Punch McGregor’s Miss Havisham is as ghostly and wafting, yet respected and exacting, as Dickens conceived. Sam Healy is perfectly cast as the heartless Estella, but did not claim the lines as her own on this first performance, so lacked conviction.

In his debut performance with MTC, Benjamin Winspear as the hero Pip certainly exceeded all expectations. A graduate from NIDA as recently as 1997, Winspear gave us a masterful and mature performance. Pip is offstage for just 10 seconds of the marathon, but Winspear never lost focus as he grew from a gangly innocent country boy to an upright educated man about town. He seemed supremely at ease onstage, and brought great physicality and intelligence to the role.

Director, cast and crew move this epic tale along at a lively pace, and we barely had time to recover and fling back a drink in each interval, before the indefatigable actors were picking up the thread again. In the program notes, Phillips says that, as he wrote the play, each of the three acts had a slightly different tone. The first was about the imagination of a young boy, the second a series of entertaining set pieces, and the third has ‘the momentum of a thriller, putting together the jigsaw…”

The first two acts certainly lived up to that description, but the momentum of the play slowed a little as the clock crept closer to midnight. I was fading a little by the third act, and would have appreciated a little more of the sensory excitement of the first two acts, as various characters came out to reveal the hidden keys in the plot and complete the puzzle.

This memorable production takes a lot of risks and pushes the boundaries of the MTC to appeal to a wider audience. It is a fine adaptation of a great novel, a feast for both Dickens fans and theatre lovers, and an opportunity to see some fine Australian actors pull out all the stops. Let’s hope this will encourage the MTC to keep taking risks, using all the whizz-bang effects and treasure chest of acting talent at their disposal.


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© copyright 2003

Carol Middleton