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Dickens in the West End: Great Expectations, adaptations and Dickensian fatigue

2013 March 12

by Emma Curry, Birkbeck College

Dickens writes in The Old Curiosity Shop of the strange feeling of flatness we experience a short time after an exciting event. He describes Kit Nubbles spending a pleasurable half-holiday off work with his family and friends, drinking tea, eating oysters, and attending a performance at the theatre; only to wake up the next day feeling full of ‘that vague kind of penitence which holidays awaken’.[1] As Dickens’s narrator laments:

Oh these holidays! why will they leave us some regret! why cannot we push them back only a week or two in our memories, so as to put them at once at that convenient distance when they may be regarded either with a calm indifference or a pleasant effort of recollection! why will they hang about us like the flavour of yesterday’s wine, suggestive of headaches and lassitude! (p. 301)

As the 7th of February came around again, and the Dickens 2012 bicentenary celebrations finally came to a close, I was left with similarly mixed emotions. Whilst I attended a range of excellent, interesting events last year, and really enjoyed witnessing the pleasure many continue to take in Dickens’s writing, I, like Kit, am now feeling vaguely ‘penitent’; a little worried that, for many, Dickens may have gained a distinct tinge of ‘yesterday’s wine’.

As I headed to the press night of the new stage production of Great Expectations at London’s Vaudeville Theatre, then, I was a little apprehensive. Would it be Dickens overkill? There have already been two new screen adaptations of this novel in the last year alone. Does it really merit a stage version as well? For that matter, is it even the kind of novel that would work on the stage?

Photo by Alastair Muir

Dickens has a rather bumpy history with theatrical adaptations. There were hundreds of attempts to put his work onto the stage in the nineteenth century, many before Dickens had even finished writing the novels. In his Life of Charles Dickens, Forster famously recounts how, at one performance of Oliver Twist at the Surrey Theatre, ‘in the middle of the first scene [Dickens] laid himself down upon the floor in a corner of the box and never rose from it until the drop-scene fell’, unimpressed with the changes that had been made.[2] The earlier novels were particularly popular for theatrical adaptations, with memorable supporting characters like Sam Weller and Sairey Gamp singled out as the focus for new productions, and rather large liberties taken with Dickens’s original plots. In comparison to favourites like Oliver or Nicholas Nickleby, however, Great Expectations has been adapted much less often: the last prominent London production was Alec Guinness’s 1939 version, which inspired David Lean’s film.[3]

This new version by Jo Clifford, then, has a relatively clean theatrical slate to work from, and no need to worry about whether Dickens will ostentatiously hide his face throughout. I had wondered how the novel’s various changes of scenery (from marshes to London to river and back) would be effected on the stage, and, in this respect, the production is brilliantly creative. The entire show is set within Miss Havisham’s dilapidated mansion, with characters emerging through holes in the walls; often leaping onto chairs or tables to deliver their lines (indeed, Herbert Pocket spends most of his scenes lounging across the mantelpiece like a cat). In the final riverboat chase, Pip and Magwitch perch on the table by the wedding cake, surrounded by smoke and black umbrellas, providing a perfectly eerie setting for the dramatic events that follow. The cast all have gothicly pale painted faces and exaggerated costumes to match their ghostly, cobwebbed surroundings, and the variations in warm and cool light to distance Joe’s forge from Satis House are beautifully realised.

Paula Wilcox as Miss Havisham. Photo by Alastair Muir

However, whilst the show is visually innovative, I found the scripting less so. As was commented in my previous review with Beatrice Bazell of Mike Newell’s Great Expectations, structuring an adaptation of this story appears rather problematic for the writer, with a tendency to place too much emphasis on the first third of the book in the marshes. The same was true here, with the whole of the first half devoted to Pip’s childhood experiences at Joe’s forge and Satis House, leaving little room in the second half for the multiple events that take place in London. It’s difficult, as Clifford acknowledges in the show’s programme, when there’s so much material to pack in to a short time, but personally I found a structure like this too rushed to fully dwell on the emotional nuances of, for example, Magwitch’s return, or Miss Havisham’s fiery demise (although, again, in purely visual terms this portion of the show was stunning). Considering the potential freedom a stage production provides (something the nineteenth-century adaptors were certainly unafraid of), I also felt that the dialogue was seemingly afraid to stray too far from the text. Exchanges between characters became, at times, paralysed by a somewhat slavish desire to fully transcribe Dickens’s exact words, and some of the actors appeared trapped in traditional ‘Dickensian’ formation. It was a shame, as, for me, these frustrating elements over shadowed the production’s visual strengths.

Post-production, and post-Dickens 2012, then, I find myself still hoping for some more unusual approaches to Dickens’s work, in an attempt to prevent him from becoming the source of collective cultural ‘headaches and lassitude’. The image attached to the Dickens 2012 ‘brand’ (of the young Dickens at the time of Nickleby’s publication) was a conscious attempt on the organisers’ part to move away from the bearded figure that is indelibly etched in the cultural imagination, and thus reinvent approaches to his writing.[4] One of the downsides of a theatrical production like this, or of Mike Newell’s film, however, is its assistance in further perpetuating the conventionally bonneted and bewigged perceptions of ‘the Inimitable’. Last year, the BBC’s modern-day adaptation, Nick Nickleby, proved brilliantly that it is both possible and, indeed, potentially much more interesting, to be innovative with the text.[5] Indeed, as Anne Humpherys points out in an essay on nineteenth-century adaptations, such reinventions or hybridizations of Dickens are often the only route into his work for some.[6] Whilst there are always plenty of great celebrations or re-renderings of Dickens for long-term fans, then, I’d love to see some more different approaches to his writing, to inspire a new collection of readers. Perhaps this might also pave the way for a less fatigue-inducing Dickens 2112!

Emma Curry is a PhD student at Birkbeck College, where she is researching Dickens’s representations of bodies, body parts and fashion accessories. You can follow her on Twitter: @EmmaLCurry


[1] Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, ed. by Elizabeth M. Brennan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 300.

[2] John Forster, Life of Charles Dickens, Chapter IX, available online at Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/25851

[3] Tony Williams, ‘Modern Stage Adaptations’ in Charles Dickens in Context, ed. by Sally Ledger and Holly Furneaux (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 60.

[4] Florian Schweizer, ‘Afterword: the 2012 Bicentenary’, in Dickens and Modernity, ed. by Juliet John (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2012), p. 213.

[5] Another similarly imaginative approach can be found at http://ourmutualfriends.com/, which showcases a variety of works inspired by Dickens’s final completed novel.

[6] Anne Humpherys, ‘Victorian Stage Adaptations and Novel Appropriations’ in Charles Dickens in Context, ed. by Sally Ledger and Holly Furneaux (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 33.

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