Great Expectations at Southwark Playhouse
Great Expectations follows the life of Pip, a boy born into poverty who becomes a blacksmith’s apprentice in a Kent village. One day Pip is invited to play at Satis House, owned by the wealthy Miss Havisham, and his life starts to change. During his visits he meets Estella, who soon becomes the apple of Pip’s eye. Pip has high hopes that Miss Havisham will make a gentleman of him, but his visits to the house are soon discontinued. Dissatisfied with life, Pip then comes into a large sum of money from a mysterious benefactor, and as a result moves to London to enter high society.
The novel is one of literature’s greats, a classic adapted time and time again, so it is naturally a challenge to remount. But it is one that writer Neil Bartlett and director Mumba Dodwell have successfully overcome in their new production at Southwark Playhouse. With modern writing, clever direction and acute acting from a cast of National Youth Theatre actors, the piece is captivating from start to finish.
The adaptation is a modern and physical one, told through ensemble storytelling, with an incredibly inviting feel to it. Breaking the fourth wall, the cast entices the audience to enter this coming-of-age tale with love and class at its crux, all with surprising comic moments.
The set design creates a mesmerising atmosphere; set on a traverse stage, the centre catwalk is a colour palette of greens and blues, drawing parallels to the Kent marshes which surrounded Pip growing up. The lighting and sound add to this atmosphere; a hazy mist lingers about the stage, with a soundscape creating tension that builds as the play goes on.
A notable performance is that of Pip, played by Joseph Payne, who draws the audience in from the start. Payne keeps us interested in two contrasting characters: the young, vulnerable orphan and the rational, reflective narrator. His silent physical acting is strong, particularly during scenes with Estella (played by Alice Franziska) and Miss Havisham (Tiwalade Ibirogba-Olulode). Payne so clearly portrays Pip’s deep turmoil – his love for Estella and confusion as to his relationship with Miss Havisham – that we feel his emotions with him.
Payne’s performance is only heightened by the strength of the supporting chorus. The adaptation is highly choreographed throughout, with faultless execution; working within the constraints of a small acting space, the cast remained engaged with an abundance of energy, meaning their timing was impeccable. This reviewer looked forward to seeing what the chorus would add to each coming scene and when they would reappear.
The scene changes were done with military precision; there was a sense of urgency among the ensemble which added to the overall feeling of Act I, that collectively they were building up to something. Moreover, they acted as an echo, adding to scenes when appropriate through whispered words, breathing or a shout; every action had purpose and dynamism. The cast did real justice to Neil Bartlett’s astute adaptation, making for an incredibly slick experience.
Photos: Ali Wright
Great Expectations is at Southwark Playhouse from 18th October until 28th November 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.