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Review of Great Expectations by The Royal & Derngate Actors Company at Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton


Market Boy from The Actors Company last year was a remarkable show and is likely to stay with me for a long time, so following it with this year's production was always going to be a tough call and with their production of the epic Dickens classic Great Expectations, they at least didn't lack ambition.

I have to be honest, things for me didn't start well. The first few minutes of this adaptation by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod is a busy and convoluted sequence moving the opening part of the story in an unclear and often irritating way. For those present not aware of the original story, I wouldn't envy them trying to keep up with what is going on. However much of the trouble of this opening sequence is quickly corrected as scenes become more defined and controlled and the story is allowed to develop at a slower pace.
Steve While (Compeyson)

Perhaps also in the early part, it doesn't help either that the gender-swapped Magwitch played by Salli Bersham is a little too full on with the old dialect and character persona and important dialogue is often lost in delivery. It is a brave and interesting choice to switch this character (what next, a female Doctor? Oh...) and it offers an interesting spin on the original storyline, and Bersham despite being a bugbear for me in the opening scene is much better when she makes her later return when the character has become more controlled.

Our main character with the Great Expectations Pip meanwhile is played first in a great youthful way by Ben Webb and then later becomes in the more mature version, Davin Eadie in a quite incredible sequence of song and movement, my favourite scene of the play. Eadie provides as ever a hugely confident and endearing performance as Pip, commanding every scene he is in and effortlessly becoming young Pip with a twinkle in the eye. I have to admit that for whatever reason I did not warm to either performer as Estella. It is true that she is a tremendously unlikeable character, however even allowing for this, I really did have trouble believing their performances despite the fact that both were, without a doubt, solid ones, if a little stilted for me.

Ben Webb (Young Pip) and Salli Bersham (Magwitch)
There was as perhaps always seems to keep happening from Stewart Magrath, another excellent performance, this time as lawyer Jaggers, bringing life into every scene he appeared in and stealing the eye in his expressive confident delivery.

Also living and breathing her role as always was the tremendously perfectly cast Sue Whyte as Miss Havisham. Yes, you have little admiration for this, due to circumstances, also unlikeable character, however, Whyte manages to imbue enough endearing nature into making you feel for her plight despite the way she treats those around her.

Two characters you can't help but love though is Joe Gargery (Mark Faray) and Biddy (Helen Gibb). Both actors bring so much loving nature to the roles that you can't help but want to cuddle them. Gibb, especially I haven't seen better than in this role, and she takes part in a gorgeous scene with Pip that it full of wonderful simmering emotion.

As well as the main roles, several of the company popped out of the ensemble during the show to create some highly likeable miniature performances. Erica Mynard was clearly having tremendous fun manning up as the stalking and thuggish Drummle, and there was a hugely entertaining scene at the club which also featured a great little performance from Jo Watts as Startop. Jo had previously also been superb in a clever piece of hat changing, character changing, as two petitioners (one male, one female). Ryan Chambers was clearly having too much fun playing the over the top thespian Wopsie, however, the fun translates with relish to the audience during his brief but hilarious scenes. Also popping silly fun into her personal moments in the limelight was Liz Vokes as exuberant watchman and counsel.
Seated: Sue Whyte (Miss Havisham) and company

Director Erica Martin nails with bravery the high ambitious way that this play takes on the challenge of keeping each of the 25 actors on stage for the entire duration of the show. Not a way to make the directors job easy, but there is a clear confidence in the cast to be strong enough to keep in character for a 140-minute performance. The ensemble becomes Pip's inner thoughts throughout the piece and members of them intermittently express them from the group. Within this, there are also some excellent scenes where they all come to one and react as Pip in reacting to events. This is represented no better than in the early second act scene between Pip and Magwitch, with the full company responding expressively to each revelation with a pull of face and expression of movement.

As expected in the Royal, it both looks and sounds great with a typically perfect set design from Meryl Couper, both full of every prop and furniture item required, and yet allowing the large cast the space to breathe. Lighting is also subtle but a delight and mostly succeeds with the challenge of making sure that this large cast to correctly lit at the right times.

So at the end of the night, Great Expectations was not quite another Market Boy, however I doubt few things ever will be for me. However, it was, a solid and tremendously clever evening of theatre, ambitiously staged by its director and well performed by a talented bunch of actors who clearly have every confidence in one another in the only way a close knit community group often can. Expectations were great and I did not leave disappointed.

Performance reviewed: Friday 14 July 2017 at the Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton.
Great Expectations by the Royal & Derngate Actors Company was performed between Friday 14th and Saturday 15th July 2017
For further details about the Royal & Derngate visit their website at http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/

Photos: Graeme Braidwood
Vicky Kelly (Wemmick) and Davin Eadie (Pip)


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