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Cast rises to a Dickens of a challenge

Great Expectations, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, until May 5.

It’s not his longest, but it’s still a Dickens of a hefty novel. Nigh-on 500 pages of small print in my copy. Yes, it was written to be read out to a live audience, albeit in instalments. By the author himself, no less.

But condensing such an epic tale into two and a half hours of live theatre for a modern audience demands . . . well, great expectations. Do Tilted Wig productions rise to the challenge? Yes and no. There are some fine performances for sure. James Dinsmore is impressive as Pumblechook and Jaggers (two Dickensian names to conjure with). And James Camp gives us an engaging Herbert Pocket, hopeless as a fighter but touching as a guide to the orphaned Pip after his mysterious inheritance projects him from poverty to posh London society. The Olivier Award-winning Nicola McAuliffe is maliciously imperious as Miss Havisham, suitably lit up by an adaptable set with hidden depths. Her demise all too literally lights up a second half that becomes a little tedious at times because of the need to keep explaining the twists and turns in a long and complex story.

And background accordion music occasionally intrudes too loudly, demanding a little more projection from the cast. Sean Aydon is a suitably small Pip who nonetheless commands the stage on occasions, skilfully adapting his manner and his accent as his fortunes change. One thing that doesn’t change is his obsession with Estella. The girl who grows into a stunningly seductive woman has been trained by the broken-hearted Miss Havisham to break the hearts of men. And that’s what she would have done to Pip had Dickens stuck with his original conclusion to the book. Yet somehow he was persuaded to give his readers and live audiences the happier ending they were crying out for. While the couple don’t exactly ride off into the sunset, there is some hope after so much misery. As the play’s director Sophie Boyce Couzens writes of Great Expectations in the programme, “Dickens presents us with a world faced with issues of poverty, wealth and class division, crime, forgiveness, love and rejection”. No change there then.

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