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Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations has been adapted by Tanika Gupta and is directed by Pooja Ghai, in this co-production between the Royal Exchange Theatre and Tamasha.

Credit: Ellie Kurttz

Dickens’s classic story of a working-class boy becoming a gentleman still resonates today. Pip’s longing to move beyond his station, Miss Havisham’s desire for revenge against the men who have wronged her, and Estella’s fear of going against her caregiver’s plans for her future: are all themes that still resonate with contemporary audiences. Gupta has taken these themes and the wider story and moved it 4500 miles from London to Bombay. Pip is now Pipli, Miss Havisham is now both Indian-born and Indian-hating, and Estella is of mixed heritage and coping with her adopted mother’s desire to ‘destroy the Indian in her’.

On the surface, it does make sense. In the novel, Pip can never truly fit in, in high society because of his humble beginnings – the circumstances of his birth mean that the people he wants so badly to impress will never see him as equal to him. In Gupta’s adaptation all of that is still applicable, but now Pipli is an Indian boy desperate to impress the English colonisers who believe they are superior to him because of their skin colour. This should raise the stakes higher than ever, but the result is a muddied mix of the original text and new historical context that lacks clarity. What of the obstacles Pipli faced were because of his race, and what were because of his class?

Despite the 12-strong cast, the stage seemed to be overfilled with Rosa Maggiora’s elaborate set design, leaving little room for group scenes to feel as crowded and manic as they should have been. Standout performances come from Shanaya Rafaat as Krishna, Pipli’s sister who takes him in after the death of their parents, and Humera Syed as Bilquis, Pip’s childhood friend. A nice touch was the use of accents: the Indian characters appeared to use their actor’s normal (northern) accents when speaking to each other, then used Indian accents when talking to English characters. It was a nice way to differentiate between using different languages, and a way to other the Indians when they were in scenes with the English.

Credit: Ellie Kurttz

There were also a few technical issues that can’t be ignored. Particularly, there is a scene underscored with a rainforest track that had a clear break in the sound. There was also a fire onstage that was too small to really have the desired effect but managed to produce a distracting amount of smoke. I don’t think it’s unfair for me to have my own Great Expectations for a building like the Royal Exchange, there have been too many recent productions that have fallen below the mark in terms of quality. They seem to play it safe, which is expected at smaller venues, but not what I expect from a theatre of this calibre.

Great Expectations is a play that seems to hold style over substance. The set design and costumes are great, and the play has some good performances, but the play itself failed to blow me away.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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