REVIEW: GREAT EXPECTATIONS (Southwark Playhouse) ★★★★

Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel, Great Expectations creates something fresh and energetic, entirely suitable for the young cast from the National Youth Theatre. Dickens is not shy of incorporating huge detail into his work, so Bartlett’s strength is to strip out the superfluous and focus on the key emotional drama in the fascinating journey for young Pip.

The core of Dickens’ story is all in place. Pip has a run-in with escaped convict Magwitch as a small child; spends time in the company of mad Miss Havisham and her beautiful adopted daughter Estella; before a mysterious benefactor pays for Pip to move to London and grow into a young gentleman; although he is still obsessed with his childhood love.

Director Mumba Dodwell and designer Hannah Wolfe were clearly of the same mind as Bartlett, creating a sparse, stripped back environment. This requires huge movement from the cast, cleverly choreographed by movement director Rachel Nanyonjo and fight director Yarit Dor. The ensemble weaves across a thin stage, dancing to deliver props and flowing through the narrative.

Joseph Payne leads the cast as Pip, narrating much of the story directly to the audience, and effortlessly moving from childhood to young man. He does well to give the role a clear emotional centre. Tiwalade Ibirogba-Olulode gives an unusual take on Miss Havisham, she revels in both her power over others as well as her decay, spitting out her anger and gleefully enjoying revenge on men through her protégé Estella, played by a talented Alice Franziska. The rest of the ensemble are confident and competent, all signing up to the speed and dynamism of the adaptation.

This is a production without excess; it draws on the gothic parts of Dickens’ London and acknowledges the class battles but focuses on the emotional experiences of the characters. The energy and commitment from the young cast is enjoyable and draws in the audience making the story accessible even to those who might not know the original novel.

Reviewed by Kris Witherington
Photo: Ali Wright
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