It’s perhaps the greatest of all his great novels, a vast, swirling story of love and longing, class and money, set against the backdrop of explosive economic and social change that was England in the 1850s. And now, out of the darkness of Becky Minto’s towering set – all black picture-frames and niches that double as grand interiors, the walls of city streets, and something beyond – comes a stage adaptation that takes the full measure of Charles Dickens’s mighty 1861 novel Great Expectations, and does it more than justice.
First seen in a small-scale TAG production in 1988, Jo Clifford’s great stage version focusses tightly on the story of Dickens’s iconic young hero, Pip, brought up by his hard-handed elder sister and her kindly husband Joe at a blacksmith’s forge in the Essex marshes, but destined to have his life transformed both by the intervention of the eccentric Miss Havisham – a wealthy and reclusive local lady who wants him as playmate for her beautiful ward Estella – and, later, by an anonymous bequest of money that transforms him into a young London “gentleman”.
And now, this beautifully clear and passionate version is revived in a co-production by Dundee Rep and Perth Theatre at Horsecross, directed by the Rep’s Jemima Levick, that simply ravishes audiences, over almost three hours, with a combination of storytelling, drama, light, music and movement so powerful that the emotional effect is sometimes almost overwhelming. Both David Paul Jones’s passionate, lyrical live piano score and Emily Jane Boyle’s fine choreography, make an outstanding contribution to the story, as the score sometimes swoops from the 19th into the 20th century with songs of love and longing that bring Pip’s obsession with Estella frighteningly close to us, and as the movement – exquisitely delivered by a Dundee Ensemble cast of eight – echoes great recent Scottish shows like Black Watch and The Salon Project, using the ritual of clothing to trace Pip’s transformations from poor boy to gentleman.
Thomas Cotran is eloquent as Pip, Ann Louise Ross haunting and magnificent as Miss Havisham, Millie Turner a chilling and heartbreaking Estella. And if, in the final scenes, the pace flags slightly, it’s a minor flaw in a stunningly well-made show, that leaves the audience in no doubt about how the politics of wealth and class damages lives, distorts desire, makes a mockery of love; and ensures traditional happy endings are hard to find, even in the world of great imaginative fiction.
• Dundee Rep until 20 June; Perth Concert Hall, 23-27 June. Seen on 06.06.15