Charles Dickens’ epic tale Great Expectations is among his most famous works and has been made into a breathlessly quick and yet atmospheric production at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake.
Sweeping from the marshlands of Kent and the backstreets of Victorian London through to high society balls and a fog bound Thames, it’s a complex story and poses a few challenges for the small cast and a single set production.
Martin John’s set design reduces each of these disparate scenes into one black backdrop with a flurry of doors, through which chorus members and characters burst, or shout, as the play hammers along. Most prominent in the sinister set is Miss Havisham’s Satis House, providing an ominous presence throughout the play.
Miss Havisham herself, played by an electric Maggie Tagney, strikes an unnerving contrast to the dark staging. Illuminated by unforgiving lighting and introduced by an eerie mechanical score, she sets the stage alight. It is easy to see how Pip, played by George Banks, is so easily overwhelmed by her.
Director Ian Forrest uses Pip to get round a lot of the plot’s twists and turns by simultaneously getting him to narrate and act his way through to story. The ploy is largely successful with Banks given some comic asides that make you wonder whether Dickens had intended certain lines to be read this way in the first place.
Some of these tricks could give the impression of simply helping Forrest get around the complexities of the epic storyline rather than adding much to the drama. However, he employs a chorus to ramp up the drama to great effect. Equally, the use of lighting convey rivers, twisted gardens and nightlit marshland is highly atmospheric.
Meanwhile, James Duke is as unsettling as Magwitch in the main house as he was as the blackmailing Krogstad in A Doll’s House also playing at studio also currently playing at Theatre by the Lake.
The cumulative result is a production that whips through one of Dickens’ most involving stories in short order and yet manages to conjure up enough atmosphere and drama to keep the audience involved right up to the final enigmatic scene outside the ruins of Satis House.