Review: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens/Adapted by Tanika Gupta, Theatre Royal Brighton

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EXOTICISM is not a word you would normally associate with the bleak overtures of Charles’ Dickens famous story.

But playwright Tanika Gupta has taken the classic tale from the austere backdrop of Victorian England and thrust it into the colour, gaiety and cruelty of colonised India during the same 19th century era.

Charles Dickens did not set his original tale in India yet I suspect he would have been surprised and delighted at this stage adaption. The original Great Expectations tale was still somehow very much there in the busy streets of Calcutta and the tiny village where this Indian version of Pip grows up.

‘It’s not Great Expectations – but it’s an excellent play”, I overheard one man remark in the interval as he queued for his little tub of luxurious ice cream.

This unknown theatre-goer made a very good point. There is a literary danger in taking an author’s work and adding or changing the material – always the question will be, is this still the original story?

But it would be hard not to admire Gupta’s version and the big subjects it addressed; not only the traditional focus of the Great Expectations narrative: the strife of romantic feelings, class differences, attempts to ‘better’ oneself, the irony of a virtuous convict – but also an edgy, deeper dimension given by the Indian setting with an exploration of racism and racial differences, and colonial and cultural domination.

Technically the tropical settings were superb, the music apt (despite the fact that it was recorded) and it’s no exaggeration to say all the actors enthralled.

Tariq Jordan’s Pip irritated me at first with his quirky quickness but he soon gained my respect. Jordan made the character his own and the fast pace of his Pip echoed the tension espoused in the plot’s themes. Simone James, called ‘the black beauty of Calcutta’, gave an exotic but stern Estella. Lynn Farleigh was haunting and ethereal as Miss Havisham.

But the minor characters were also brilliant – Tony Jayawardena poignant and funny as Joe Gargary, Giles Cooper gave raw energy as Herbert Pocket – and Jude Akuwudike definitely mesmerising as Magwitch.

Chris Eyte