Jane Asher and Admirable Young Cast Can/'t Save a Not so ...

The chimney-sweeps of yore have become the toiling board-treaders of today. Were children forthwith banned from performing on our stages, the consequences for British theatre would be dire. They're prime movers in umpteen musicals and straight theatre needs its quota of them, too. Up in Leeds we find youngsters to the fore in Michael Eaton's adaptation of Great Expectations, directed by Lucy Bailey.

I have only warm admiration for the trio I saw at the opening matinee, braving the varying challenges of Young Pip, Young Estella and the briefly glimpsed Young Herbert Pocket. Take a bow Rhys Gannon, Imogen Cole and Magnus Cameron.

Gannon's Pip in particular, though, is shouldering an incredible amount of responsibility. Yes, there's pathos in seeing this sweetly solemn lad contemplate his parents' gravestone, get seized by the convict Magwitch, be simulated-whacked by his vicious older sister 'Mrs Joe' and suffer the scornful laughter of Cole's poised and prim Estella. But his vulnerable presence is mainly picturesque, and provides little psychological insight. The script is a pipsqueak echo of the novel; it dispenses with the narration and Christmas-pudding-rich prose, but also the complex sense of Pip's older self recounting his younger days.

Bailey's production is hostage to a revolving wooden design (by Mike Britton) which looks imposing - with its hulking evocation of a convict-carrying ship - but allows far too many back-stage crew sounds to compete for our attention.

One chapter grinds round into another,the basics are covered. But few in the adult ensemble shine. Daniel Boyd's older, mysteriously elevated Pip - lewdly initiated into privileged society by being made to kiss a severed pig's head (a crude spot of Bullingdon bashing) - remains blandly genial even in his ingrate period of newly assumed gentility. I preferred Patrick Walshe McBride, who plays Herbert Pocket in manhood and brings frilly, camp inflections to his friendly character's circumlocutory way of talking. The scene in which he keeps interrupting himself to correct Pip's etiquette provides a first-rate comic fillip.

The casting coup of the show, its celebrity benefactor as it were, is Jane Asher as literature's most famous jilted (and long-grieving) bride: Miss Havisham. She matches the sinister requirements with her ragged-hemmed wedding-dress, herfierce eyes whichlock steadfastly onto their target and her hissing manner. But Miss H is only around for short bursts and her fire-ravaged demise is feebly conveyed by a little row of flames that jet up along her un-cleared wedding banquet table.

Not a disaster, then, this Dickens. Alas, not so great either.

Great Expectations, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, until April 2. Tickets: 0113 213 7700;


Telegraph Media Group Limited 2019

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