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Great Expectations | Royal Exchange, Manchester

Quaint details and gorgeous imagery are plenty in the Royal Exchange's adaptation of Dicken's beloved novel. However, for all the show's glamorous style and creativity, there remains a lack of distraction from the source material's tedious pace, simplistic characters and overall lack of excitement; sadly this is more of a chore than a charm to watch.

If there's one thing the Royal Exchange Theatre can be counted on, it’s delivering artistically impressive pieces of theatre, staged with meticulous care and creativity. This year's Great Expectations does exactly that, creating a transformative piece of theatre that is somewhat unrecognisable when compared to the dated classic. Yet unfortunately, for all the directorial strength seen on display, little can change the fact that Great Expectations is a bloated, boring and convoluted mess of work. While one can commend Pooja Ghai's efforts, it remains baffling why such a lifeless piece of theatre is still being produced.

Upon entering the auditorium, one is struck by the beauty and elegant simplicity of Ros Maggiora's design, with a distinctly Indian yet contemporary infused set taking centre stage. Two ascending ramps create a sense of longing (yet unsuccessful) desire for growth, mirroring Pipli's journey throughout the narrative, and a lit water effect forms a sense of life that encases the entire production. In tandem with the set design is Joshua Carr's lighting design, which while simplistic, creates beauty, tension and atmosphere, transforming the unchanging stage into a variety of locations, from a crumbling mansion to a Calcutta restaurant. The staging truly comes into its own in act two, during a fiery climax of tensions; for an otherwise plodding and uneventful play, the increased pace paired with a dynamic synergy of lighting, effects and sound makes for a thrilling scene that if anything, leaves the audience wondering where this level of excitement has been for the previous two hours.

Upon entering the auditorium, one is struck by the beauty and elegant simplicity of Ros Maggiora's design, with a distinctly Indian yet contemporary infused set taking centre stage. Two ascending ramps create a sense of longing (yet unsuccessful) desire for growth, mirroring Pipli's journey throughout the narrative, and a lit water effect forms a sense of life that encases the entire production. In tandem with the set design is Joshua Carr's lighting design, which while simplistic, creates beauty, tension and atmosphere, transforming the unchanging stage into a variety of locations, from a crumbling mansion to a Calcutta restaurant. The staging truly comes into its own in act two, during a fiery climax of tensions; for an otherwise plodding and uneventful play, the increased pace paired with a dynamic synergy of lighting, effects and sound makes for a thrilling scene that if anything, leaves the audience wondering where this level of excitement has been for the previous 2 hours.

The most interesting creative decision here is to relocate Dickens' Victorian England drama to colonial India, which brings a refreshing sense of relevance and innovation to what would otherwise be an outdated piece of literature, This allows a transformative facelift in the aesthetics of the piece: a distinctly Indian set, costume and sound design makes for an intriguing piece of theatre, and creatives subversions for the audience. Sadly, this high-potential idea fails to leave an impact beyond a basic cosmetic makeover; discussions on colonialism reach their peak with the mere sentiment that 'it happened' and little emphasis is placed on the ways in which this changes character dynamics and the plot. Rather this is a decision that acts as purely style over substance, with the production finding minimal meaningful commentary within their radical changes to the text. What this results in is a play that feels somewhat aimless; at the end of its dauntingly long 2 hour 50 minutes run time, there was a sense of pointlessness that lingered over its confusion - for such an unnecessarily bloated script, one could certainly hope for more.

The cast, led by Esh Alladi are wonderful, lending a great deal of authenticity to their characterisations, yet are repeatedly let down by the one-note roles that they are presented with: Miss Havisham is simply 'screaming old lady', Ganguly is nothing more than a bumbling idiot, and any supporting characters beyond the leading cast of five sadly fade into irrelevance. The female roles in particular feel underwritten - disappointing for a modern rewrite of a classic - as the women serve as either love interests, background scene fillers, or to die. While no issue can be taken with the physical performances of these actors, whose stamina to take on such a daunting piece is impressive, the accents on display within the show led to a degree of bafflement. Switching between natural English regional accents, and localised Indian accents, the cast appeared to fluctuate with seemingly little reason, detracting from the immersion that the flawless set and costumes strived to achieve. While neither accent choice was bad, the indecisiveness with which it was approached left an air of amateurism that feels out of place in a production of such high standard.

There's a lot to admire in this re-imagining of Great Expectations, and as usual, the Royal Exchange execute it with a genius aesthetic and creative vision. These small triumphs however, fail to eclipse the larger problem at play - that perhaps this play was not the best choice to produce in the first place. If you fancy seeing this play, perhaps lower your expectations from great to somewhat mediocre.

{AD | Gifted} written by Finlay Cooper | Photography Ellie Kurtz

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