Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Fri 15 & Sat 16 Feb; Paisley Arts Centre, Thu 21 Feb; MacRobert, Stirling, Tue 26 Feb
Much of Charles Dickens’ most successful work draws on his own life experiences. Strange, then, that perhaps his most popular tale is arguably the least Dickensian of all. The absence of absurdly grotesque characters surrounding Philip Pirrip certainly helps contemporary audiences to achieve an affinity with the piece, but ultimately it’s Pip’s well-travelled journey of ambition and self-improvement that resonates. It’s a journey that Jo Clifford’s ambitious adaptation wisely clings to.
Dickens’ oft-told tale of class climbing and conscience follows narrator Pip (Richard Conlon) as he falls in love with his social superior, Estella (Susan Coyle). Eager to elevate his social standing in the eyes of Estella’s adoptive mother, and perennial bride, Miss Havisham (Jenny Lee), Pip makes his way to London, where, with the help of a predictably anonymous benefactor, he hopes to become a gentleman.
Through necessity, Jo Clifford’s often-revived adaptation strips away much of the original story, and yet Pip’s journey retains its ability to engage, due mainly to the insistence that the ability to change be rewarded while stagnation should be punished. And yet the overall feeling of the Byre’s production is one of loss.
Monika Nisbet’s abstract twin white sails loom imperiously over her predominantly black set, allowing director Ben Twist the chance to play engagingly with shadows while encouraging the cast to increasingly dominate the space, but Nisbet’s design never allows the audience to be lifted or carried away. Dickens’ protagonist is at heart an idealist, perceiving something better and striving to achieve it, tirelessly engaging his audience with his expectations. Here, you get the sense of Pip as flotsam being tossed around the Thames, unable to alter his course.
To his credit, Richard Conlon’s Pip does eventually feel his way into the role and the cast are generally strong, but it’s David Fennessey’s soundscape that ultimately describes the plucky orphan’s journey. Encompassing and annoying in equal measure, the composer’s work distracts, captivates and informs as the scenes shift from Kent to London, from Joe’s forge to Jagger’s shop, repeatedly immersing the audience in (before exhuming them from) Dickens’ world.
Clifford’s departure from either of Dickens’ two endings maintains the novelist’s diagnosis of a class-divided sickness, with the ability to change as the cure, and leaves the audience with the fitting moral that conscience is more important than wealth.