Theatre Review: GREAT EXPECTATIONS – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

The cast of GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Photo Credit: Ellie Kurttz

Driven by its immersive set and impressive cast performances, Tanika Gupta’s adaptation of GREAT EXPECTATIONS delivers a fresh perspective on the classic novel.

4 out of 5 stars

Tanika Gupta’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS makes its third outing at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, following its debut in Watford a decade ago and a 2017 stint in Chicago.

Directed by Pooja Ghai, who originally played Krishna in the first production, GREAT EXPECTATIONS offers a fresh perspective on the classic novel. Together with set and costume designer Rosa Maggiora, the pair create an immersive experience thanks to an impressive in-the-round stage design, complete with exotic incense that transports the audience to historic India.

The cast of GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Photo Credit: Ellie Kurttz

What sets this adaptation apart is its faithfulness to Charles Dickens’ original work (80% of the dialogue comes straight from the book) and its interesting expansion of the story, starting in 1861. In this adaptation, the politics are much clearer, more contemporary, and more relevant, addressing themes of discrimination, postcolonial India, and the remnants of the British empire.

As Jagu, Asif Khan delivers an outstanding performance, showcasing vulnerability and strength. Esh Aliadi as Pipli (adapted from Pip) also offers an emotive performance, using physicality to depict his struggle with reconciling ambition with cultural identity.

As Miss Havisham, Catherine Russell takes previous incarnations of the character and amalgamates them into an undone woman. Cecilia Appiah’s performance as Estella is equally intriguing, although her transition from hatred to allowing Pipli’s advances could be smoother, and her early bond with her father could be explored further to better explain her later vengeful tendencies.

The cast of GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Photo Credit: Ellie Kurttz

Andrew French shines as Malik, a man who navigates a harsh world, ultimately finding success and sharing his wealth with those who showed him kindness, his pain palpable through his actions on stage.
The production’s special effects, including blood and fire, are spectacular, and the fight choreography is well-executed, particularly given the challenges of performing in the round.

However, the production is let down slightly by its soundscape. Pipli’s arrival in Calcutta could have been more immersive, and the fire scene is hindered by an overly loud smoke machine that overpowers the crackle of flames.

That said, GREAT EXPECTATIONS offers both humour and poignant moments, bringing well-known characters to life in a fresh and engaging setting.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, until 7 October 2023.