Review – Great Expectations, Royal and Derngate Actors Company, Royal Theatre, Northampton, 15th July 2017

Great ExpectationsI wonder if Dickens might go the way of Shakespeare before long, and prove himself worthy of modern adaptations, where the story is set in a different era and characters who were originally male become female and vice versa. One always associates Dickens with those foggy London streets or bleak Yorkshire Moors; but with Shakespeare, it’s different. It’s been ages since I’ve seen a Shakespeare play that was actually set in the 16th or 17th century and in the locations that Shakespeare specified; and with last summer’s The Tempest featuring (inter alia) a female Prosper, and with Glenda Jackson recently playing Lear, for example, his works are ripe for a spot of gender-bending.

GE1Erica Martin’s production of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s adaptation of Great Expectations for the stage features a female Magwitch. Now that’s something to conjure with. Traditionally he appears as a menacing brute, primarily because of that first, terrifying meeting with the young Pip, where he threatens to cut his throat, and makes him promise to get him food, and a file to cut off the iron chain on his leg, “or I’ll have your heart and liver out”. For sure, those are the words of a brutish man more than a brutish woman, although I had several female teachers in my youth who would have queued up to deliver those lines.

GE3The humiliation that the older Pip suffers when he realises that his financial benefactor has been Magwitch all along, and not Miss Havisham, remains the same; it’s the integrity of the person (or rather lack of it) that offends him, rather than the fact that she’s a woman. However, as Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, it’s very hard to believe that a convict woman, in the early 19th century, would have made good in New South Wales, as a sheep farmer and stock breeder, and become rich. It may just have been credible for a man, but a woman? Not in those days; it’s hard enough today.

GE4I digress. We’ve seen the Actors Company a few times now and they always astound us with the excellence of their performance. Whether set in today’s times, like The Revenger’s Comedies and Market Boy, or in olden days, like Our Country’s Good or, now, Great Expectations, they take a play full of depth and character and bring it to life with superb conviction. Meryl Couper’s terrific set created a decent acting area at front whilst devoting other parts of the stage to the Gargerys, Miss Havisham’s house, and so on. It provided a suitable sense of Dickensian gloom without being overwhelming; as did the excellent costumes. The lighting was efficient and atmospheric – in fact you wouldn’t know this wasn’t a professional production.

GE5The structure requires that all the actors are on stage more or less the whole time, acting as both chorus and the inner thoughts of Pip, taking alternate lines from the book very much in the style of David Edgar’s adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby that was a huge success for the RSC back in 1980. I like this approach; although you get a lot of information flung at you at first, and it’s hard to take it all in, you get a strong ensemble feeling that everyone is fully involved in the story-telling task. And when different actors are speaking lines that are the thoughts of one character, that also gives the impression of all the different voices that are going on inside his head – a very effective technique. Whilst I felt that there was quite a lot of scene-setting in the first act and that it was maybe a trifle long, the story really gets going after the interval and it was riveting stuff.

GE6Centre stage for much of the final two-thirds of the play is Davin Eadie as Pip (adult version). With a commanding stage presence, and very authoritative vocal delivery, I really enjoyed his performance of this Everyman character with whom we all identify. Ben Webb, as his younger version, employed just the right amount of wide-eyed innocence (in his dealings with Magwitch), trust (with Joe) and vulnerability (with Miss Havisham and Estella). Other superb performances came from Sue Whyte as Miss Havisham, who gave her a splendid gruff grandeur that commanded both fear and respect; Will Adams as the pompous and meddling Pumblechook; Vicky Kelly as a wonderfully terse (when at work) and garrulous (when at play) Wemmick; and Ryan Chambers delightfully over-the-top as the thespian Wopsle.

GE7Salli Belsham had the difficult task of creating a credible “Ann” Magwitch, but as the performance developed I thought she drew out the character’s finer points very convincingly, and the scene where she confronts Pip and Herbert and reveals herself to be the benefactor was one of the best in the play. But for me the stand-out performance was from Stewart Magrath as Jaggers, the lawyer, stabbing out his carefully planned words with a natural authority, conducting his affairs cordially but precisely, appearing to be a friend, but only if he is paid. A very striking and memorable performance.

Some very strong scenes and performances made this a very rewarding production; the Actors Company can chalk up another hit!

Review – Our Country’s Good, Community Actors Group, Derngate, Northampton, 18th July 2011

Our Country's Good“Our Country’s Good”’s been around since 1988, so how come Mrs Chrisparkle and I had never seen it? Well 1988 was a time of Us Doing Other Things and theatre wasn’t on the agenda that often. I’d heard that it was a well thought-of play about life in a penal colony in Australia and that it had won awards and is studied in schools. And so it is. It’s a tough play in many respects – it doesn’t hesitate to show the savagery of the penal colony, the hopelessness of the inmates, and the sad loneliness of the officers too (some of them – not the ones who are being sadistic, they quite like it.)

So I jumped at the chance of seeing it on stage. I was impressed at how the play takes on many themes. On the one hand, it’s an historical account of the penal colony and how the first ever production of a play on Australian soil came about. On another level, it questions loyalty within subgroups – literally honour amongst thieves; the part the arts can play in redeeming a criminal soul; and the rights and wrongs of a sadistic justice system. The play is just on for three nights at the Underground at the Derngate, performed by the Derngate’s Community Actors Group. (What a shame they decided to add an apostrophe on the programme!) We’d seen members of the group a couple of years ago when they performed Alan Ayckbourn’s Revengers’ Comedies as part of the Derngate’s Ayckbourn summer season, and that production proved a most enjoyable and important part of the programme.

It’s a delight to see the play performed in the Underground Studio, with the seats lining the edges of the room so as to create a very intimate theatre-in-the-round effect. Having just a few props and items of furniture encourage your imagination to fill in the gaps, which is something I always enjoy in the theatre; although to be fair, I was also impressed to see a rowing boat in this production! Attention to detail was very good, with excellent costumes and sensibly evocative sound effects.

Meryl CouperThe cast work together really well and have an obvious affinity for the play itself. There were some excellent performances – Meryl Couper as the unashamedly tricky Liz Morden, has some of the best lines and delivered them with a great mix of comic timing and vitriol. At the beginning of the second act is a speech as full of difficult to comprehend words as some of the most intractable lines of Jacobean Tragedy – yet she actually made it understandable. Sue WhyteDelivering tough justice, Sue Whyte played Major Robbie Ross as a hard warden and a critical colleague; a very strong and memorable performance. She also did a great comic cameo as Meg the whore.

Will AdamsWill Adams brought natural authority to the role of Captain Philip, the man in charge of the penal colony, trying to balance natural justice with the need to run the place effectively. I also very much liked Paul Tunnicliffe’s John Arscott, the keen but troubled convict actor, whose clarity of speech and terrific acting skills could fill the National Theatre. Adam Kozuch grew into the character of Harry Brewer, and the scene depicting his hallucinations of guilt, as a result of arranging the deaths of convicts whom he had started to like, was very powerful. Adam Kozuch Righting the wrongs of last year by dealing with the sin of omission, I should have blogged (but never did) the excellent Northampton Town Walk “Town, My Town” in which Adam Kozuch made a couple of memorable appearances, especially when he came to life as the man reading The Crucible on the Church park bench. If you experienced it, you’ll definitely remember it.

All in all, a very enjoyable evening, and a vivid and clear presentation of an emotionally tough play.