views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Miss Havisham's Expectations
Trafalgar Studios
12th December 2014


Linda Marlow as Miss Havisham

Photography © Richard Davenport

I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting from Miss Havisham's Expectations. Miss Havisham may be one of my favourite characters, but she's not the focus of Dickens' work; Great Expectations is about one Philip Pirrip, and to a lesser extent, the love story - or lack thereof - between Pip and Estella. Maybe I was anticipating a retelling of the tale from the spinster's perspective and that is what I got to an extent, but also an insight into the historical links between Dickens' real life and his writing and, curiously, a couple of so-called magic tricks. Linda Marlowe does the character justice, but writer-director Di Sherlock delivers a rather confused story which isn't sure if it wants to educate, entertain or do something else entirely.

I'm all for immersive theatre - if the show warrants it, I'll happily let the company drag me out of my comfort zone. I've sung, danced, read lines, pretended to raise the dead - you couldn't accuse me of not playing along. However, that's the point. Every time Marlowe breaks the fourth wall it's not necessary and just doesn't add anything. It jolts us out of the performance. Are we watching? Are we participating? And it doesn't make us feel or think a certain way.

There seem to be at least a few different versions of Miss Havisham played by Marlowe. There's the one lifted straight from the text and there's a character who's capable of thinking for herself and indeed, arguing with her author. Combine this with the fourth wall issue, and it can be difficult to keep up in places, no matter how well you know the original story.

I guess the flaw with the production is in trying too hard - Miss Havisham is a deeply layered character, and 60 minutes with her could be a good old-fashioned piece of storytelling and achieve so much more. Indeed, the other production in Dickens with a Difference, Sikes & Nancy, opts to pare back the props and simply deliver a good story. It's a very different approach to adapting a text, and as it turns out, it's the superior one.

Linda Marlow as Miss Havisham

Photography © Steve Ullathorne

Dickens himself doesn't dedicate a great deal of time to Miss Havisham - she's a woman with hopes and dreams which are cruelly dashed at the worst possible moment. She's defined by her tragedy and, of course, that makes it even harder to bounce back. How do you recover from a setback when all of society won't let you forget it? Stick a label on someone and of course they'll play up to it. If everyone calls you a mad jilted bride, why bother to take off the ruined gown?

Sherlock touches on this aspect and in the sequences where Marlowe reenacts scenes from the original text plus supposed scenes which happened off-page, we get a glimpse into the real woman. We see her heartache, her indifference - and an hour of this, I would have really apprciated. As I said, I have a soft spot for the character and have always felt more could have been done with her. Never mind marsh boy, there's more interest in a woman scorned.

If you're going to perform magic, you should be a skilled magician, able to do tricks with ease that no one can guess. Magic consultant Scott Penrose hasn't helped Marlowe deliver the goods, but presumably there's only so much you can do with an actress who isn't also a magician. I don't blame either for the lack of wow factor, but I question the decision to try in the first place - even if Miss Havisham had pulled Dickens himself out of her wedding veil, I don't think I would have cared. In the wrong hands, magic and drama is not a happy marriage.

Even technology suffers. The use of multimedia could feel natural, segmenting personalities and tones given the abundance of ideas they were striving towards. But it sadly doesn't, the CGI flames superimposed on a digital copy of a linocut illustration, together with a modern radio news broadcast are simply jarring.

In brighter news, although some of the set dressing is somewhat gimmicky, designer Andie Scott dresses Marlowe perfectly. Her scorched wedding gown, her grey matted hair with braids in it - and yet blood red lipstick - she's an echo of the expectant bride who had her whole life stretching ahead of her. The writing isn't always true to Dickens' character, but her wardrobe certainly is.

It's difficult to understand Sherlock's motivations behind this piece but that doesn't stop Marlowe from taking the material and delivering it with a wonderful charm and grace. Many of Dickens' followers may find Miss Havisham's Expectations unfaithful and hard to really connect with. If you haven't read the novel - or can at least temporarily wipe your mind of the memory of it - there is something to enjoy in Marlowe's delivery.

Miss Havisham's Expectations opened on 16th December 2014 and runs until 3rd January 2015 at Trafalgar Studios, alongside Sikes and Nancy as part of Dickens with a Difference.

Nearest tube station: Charing Cross (Northern, Bakerloo)

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