Bede’s Production of ‘Great Expectations’ Haunts and Harrows

December 2, 2016

Against a blood-red velvet backdrop, stained with mildew and threaded-through with shimmering spider silk, Bede’s production of Great Expectations has this week guided audiences through a shadowy world of decay, injustice and faded Victorian grandeur.

For those unfamiliar, Charles Dickens’ iconic novel follows a wayward hero, Pip, on the journey of his young life. From penniless orphan to foppish gentleman, he navigates the distinct levels of Imperial society and exposes secret horrors along the way.

In this stage adaptation, directed by Bede’s Drama department’s Mrs Goldring, the well-worn story was narrated – sometimes jarringly – by a cacophony of different voices. The effect challenged audiences to keep up, pay attention, and remain a step apart from what was happening on stage, critically viewing and assessing which characters were doing what and, most importantly, why.

Decidedly stylized, the production started with the novel’s most iconic character, Miss Havisham, sat alone onstage. Rarely leaving, and played on different nights by Ruby Moody and Lillie Skerman, her ghostly figure sat in the same spot more or less throughout the play, a living statue watching on, surrounded by dozens of other unsettling and shadowy narrators.

This haunting effect was both invigorating and unexpected, the chorus being expertly led by the ever-outstanding Max Mason. It meant that the actions of every character were flanked and crowded in upon by an outward-facing audience of bereft characters.

Observers were powerless but to watch on as this set of mobile, melancholy observers clutched at the main characters’ clothing, reacted to their dramas and offered up their own sound effects, gasping and peering out at the audience like vermin through the mouldering set.

With nigh-on every actor sporting ghostly white makeup and black lipstick, the performers seemed less like human beings and more like inquisitive, mournful mannequins or, perhaps, restless cadavers, unable to leave the stage without their message being heard. Indeed, each character was presented in a neo-Gothic aesthetic more associated with Tim Burton, Robert Smith or Theda Bara than Charles Dickens, and nowhere was this more apparent than in Earl Cave’s Pip.

A slight, handsome, yet vulnerable figure, Cave’s gaunt face and wiry frame suggested an awkward vulnerability with every movement. This aura of helplessness was reinforced by Cave’s soft, husky voice, which tightened skilfully from a cockney brogue to clipped Received Pronunciation across the performance.

Never did the sense dissipate that the character was less a person than a prop however, a puppet dragged from scene to scene by events and characters which unfurled and revealed their secrets around him.

Of particular note was Cave’s first significant appearance, when the outstanding Tristan Derry handed the baton over and the bright-eyed Young Pip gave way to his older self. The transition took place during an anthemic, whole-cast rendition of Old Clem, and this melancholy highlight was enough to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

It was far from all doom and gloom however, with irrepressible cheer and good humour injected with gusto by a number of supporting characters. Echo Abraham’s chipper Biddy, Tom McGovern’s show-stoppingly dynamic Jaggers and Louis Muston’s effusive and charming Herbert Pocket pierced the gloom like bolts of lightning.

Similarly, Rhys Clarke, who seemed to be channelling Captain Jack Sparrow in his portrayal of Magwitch, and Joshua Knight, as a sensitive, plodding Joe, offered welcome changes of pace whenever they took centre stage.

As has come to be expected from Mr Waring and his Theatre Production Team, fine stagecraft was also on show. From some extraordinary model work, including a miniature iteration of Joe Gargery’s forge, complete with smoking chimney, to subtle and imaginative lighting, praise is due to whole backstage team – not least Stage Manager and Upper Sixth pupil Ambra Fuller.

Elsewhere, amongst the most tragic characters in the story, Young Estella was personified with a shocking cruelty by Meredith Malina-Derben, with Imogen Lock and Georgia Myers playing the split role of the adult character with distinct differences across the performances.

Myers, for example, was glamourous, severe and elegant, her diffidence turning to cruelty in a heartbeat. Lock, meanwhile, played the character with sneer, each of her chilling eye-rolls carrying a devastating power.

As is often the way with Dickens, the supporting cast ran deep. Particular highlights revealed themselves in Archie Reid, whose scene-stealing turns in a number of minor roles marked him out as a rising star, Luke Noble, whose tragicomic Orlick was magnetic, and Jessie Davies, who took the tiny role of Molly and presented it with a deep sadness during her every moment in the limelight.

For true power, however, none could compete with Lillie Skerman and Ruby Moody, who took alternating turns as Miss Havisham.

While Moody was suitably predatory, damaged and cruel, Skerman’s turn in the dress was truly unnerving. With her striking, delicate face, she ranged from graceful and warm to skittish, stuttering and frighteningly mad, presenting the character as an ethereal spectre with a convincingly shattered mind.

Of all the arresting aspects of this production however, one of the most unforgettable was the shadow-play created by the cast’s movements projected, via front lighting, onto the set behind them. As captivating as the performances by this young cast may have been, each of them had a double – their shadows incarnate – and the shapes their sorry tales made on the decaying curtains upstage were grotesque and gripping.

Thankfully, this was wholly appropriate. A story about the inescapable things behind us, about the echoes our actions cause, refracted and dark and looming, those who made the trip to see Great Expectations this week will have left in no doubt that the past is restless.

It simply will not be forgotten