Theatre Review - Great Expectations, Theatre by the Lake

Nichola McAuliffe (Miss Havisham). Photography by Lisa Roberts

Nichola McAuliffe (Miss Havisham). Photography by Lisa Roberts - Credit: Archant

The Charles Dickens masterpiece stops off at Keswick as part of a national tour.

Edward Ferrow (Joe Gargery). Photography by Lisa Roberts

Edward Ferrow (Joe Gargery). Photography by Lisa Roberts - Credit: Archant

Tilted Wig Productions and Malvern Theatres have produced Charles Dickens’ beloved Great Expectations and are currently touring the country with it. At the time of writing it’s at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake.

The ‘star’ actor for the show, Nichola McAuliffe, plays the role of Miss Havisham and makes her surprisingly tender and human. Traditionally, the character is portrayed as twisted and borderline crazy in her pursuit of revenge on all males, but McAuliffe presents us with a sad old woman whose heart is really not always in it. Her moments of cruelty are barely noticeable and that, somehow, makes the character more believable.

Séan Aydon takes the principal role of Pip, the hero of the story. It is his ‘great expectations’ which we follow from his childhood until he is a young man and watch him as he matures and learns important lessons about life. The character is a gentle one, not unlike the naïve Kim of Kipling’s famous story, and Aydon certainly portrays this well. His transformation from seven-year-old to grown man was subtle but nicely done.

For me however. Edward Ferrow stole the show. Playing multiple parts, I was most impressed with his handling of Pip’s first guardian and friend, Joe Gargery, and the financial clerk Wemmick. So superbly different was the handling that it took me some time to consciously realise the parts were played by the same actor. This was in contrast to the other actors who played so many roles that these did, at times, merge into one another and it was hard to keep track who was meant to be who.

The nine-man ensemble use a minimalist staging - a cubic frame not unlike, appropriately, a prison cell - and a handful of props to evoke the atmosphere of a dozen settings at least and it works very well. Metaphor abounds, not least the way Miss Havisham is kept, quite literally, boxed up until called upon for her scenes. The cast manage to call on the imagination of the audience without lapsing into modernistic anachronisms so popular with Shakespearean productions but also avoid making the classic story banal as an historical set piece.

Some classic tales lose their punch in modern times but Great Expectations isn’t one of them. Although the ending rambles a wee bit after we finally come to know who the ‘great benefactor’ is in Pip’s life, the issues raised are still very important today and drive the play on. Is being rich and ‘socially acceptable’ the most important pursuit in life? Does it matter how you obtain fortune and how you use it? What does it mean to be poor? Can love, and even money, redeem the past? In an individualist capitalist society bordering on hedonism today, these are still questions which need asking. Dickens didn’t fear asking tough questions in the middle of the 19th century and they are still good ones even now. This cast raises them again - delightfully well.

The company is at Theatre by the Lake until 14 April (call the Box Office on 01768 774411 for tickets) and then continues its nationwide tour which ends on 23 June. For details see