My expectations were, if not great, then certainly very good for Soulpepper Theatre’s Great Expectations. After all, this dramatization of the Charles Dickens novel, opening the company’s summer season, was in the capable hands of adapter/director Michael Shamata, whose version of A Christmas Carol is a much-revived Soulpepper favourite. Not only that, the cast includes such seasoned comic actors as Oliver Dennis and John Jarvis, for whom “Dickensian” is often a fitting adjective. So the prospects were decidedly favourable.
Alas, by the end of Act 1 my hopes had been dashed. What I had just seen transpire in the Young Centre’s Michael Young Theatre was awkward, silly and as flat as the Kent marshes where the story is initially set.
Shamata’s adaptation leaned too heavily on narration. As the hero Pip Jeff Lillico spent more time telling us, rather than showing us, what he thought and felt. And as a director Shamata had made the unfortunate choice of letting Lillico play the seven-year-old Pip, while casting child actress Naomi Agard as his love, the beautiful but proud Estella. As a consequence their scenes together, which should establish the mix of infatuation and inadequacy that motivate Pip’s desire to become a gentleman, were instead merely quaint and cute.
More distressing, however, was Kate Trotter’s performance as the book’s most iconic figure, Estella’s mentor and Pip’s supposed benefactor, the jilted and eternally bitter Miss Havisham. Trotter, clad in a rotting wedding dress and cloaked in shadows, came on like a harpy in an old melodrama, screeching raucously and beating the furniture with her cane.
During intermission I was ready to write off the production as that rarity, a Soulpepper flop. But then came Act 2. Suddenly, it was as if, like Pip, the show itself had grown up, put aside its foolishness and taken on a new maturity. While there were still some ungainly bits of staging, the narration thinned out and the dialogue took hold. And just as if they’d been steeping through the interval, the full flavour of Dickens’ eccentric characters could finally be savoured.
Most of the 11-member ensemble plays two or more roles and I was struck by how Shamata emphasizes the theme of duality in his casting. A nicely restrained Dennis is both the simple, good-hearted blacksmith Joe Gargery and the canny law clerk Wemmick. A confident Leah Doz portrays the adult Estella, but also her antithesis, the plain, honest Biddy.
Lillico is an earnest – at times, over-earnest – Pip. Thankfully, he has his own opposite in Paolo Santalucia as his peppy London roommate Herbert Pocket, who seems to be perpetually propelled across the stage on a breeze of youthful enthusiasm. In contrast, a superb C. David Johnson as Pip’s guardian, the formidable lawyer Jaggers, darts in and out of scenes with keen deliberation. Coldly scrupulous in all he says and does, his revelation of his other side – that of a compassionate do-gooder – is the more satisfying for the way Johnson delivers it in the man’s slyly circumspect fashion. Then there’s the jolly Jarvis, who lights up small corners of the show both as the pompous Uncle Pumblechook and Wemmick’s stone-deaf but blissful Aged Parent. As Abel Magwitch, the escaped convict whose encounter with Pip changes both their lives, a rough-hewn Oliver Becker conjures up happy memories of Finlay Currie, who played the role in David Lean’s indelible 1946 film.
Great Expectations is one of Dickens’ most psychologically complex, not to say troubling, novels. Fans will find that this retelling only fitfully captures its power. What we get instead is a handful of great performances that don’t quite add up to a great play.