Great Expectations, Part One
QEGS once again revelled in a sense of anticipation as ‘Great Expectations, Part One’ came to be performed in the school hall. The first instalment of Mr Ventress’ two-part adaptation of Dickens’ classic novel followed on from his successful production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 2015 and so expectations were, indeed, great for an evening of engrossing theatre.
Rhys Millington, rapidly becoming one of our youngest QEGS stage veterans, ably opened the production with his superbly characterised portrait of the guilt-ridden, downtrodden Pip, between the ages of seven to around fourteen. He communicated to the audience all the psychological torment of this most complex of Dickens’ child heroes with the commitment and dramatic skill of a true method actor. From his initially terrified and then slowly empathetic interactions in the opening scenes with Mr Derek Eames’ rough diamond of an escaped convict Magwitch - returning to the QEGS stage in a very different role to his Colonel in last summer’s ‘Journey’s End’ - to his increasingly class-conscious awkwardness before the mysterious and alluring Miss Havisham and Estella, Rhys completely held the stage for the first forty-five minutes of the performance .
Some of the most memorable scenes in the first half were those between Pip and Will Gedling’s truly “as-TON-ishing” portrayal of Pip’s kindly, simple yet strangely wise brother-in-law, Joe Gargery. As well as easily having the lion’s share of lines for the evening, Will also overcame the serious challenge of delivering Joe’s often self-defeatingly wordy dialect with aplomb, his highly authentic Kentish twang being just one element in a performance which embodied the character’s mannerisms and personality flawlessly; Will seemed to have felt himself body and voice into the part in a way which would not have disgraced the professional theatre. Given this is only his second major role at QEGS, his meteoric rise to star thespian is all the more impressive!
This was also a record first at QEGS for the sheer number of teaching staff swelling the ranks of the cast - six in all, if one discounts the late addition to the roster of the director Mr Ventress as Mr Jaggers. Opposite Mr Eames as Magwitch’s deadly enemy Compeyson was Mr Christian Braime, in his first appearance since he represented Charles Dickens himself in “A Christmas Carol”, here a convincingly cowardly foil to Mr Eames’ ferocious, embittered Magwitch, their much-anticipated on-stage brawl being one of the highlights of the evening. Special mention must be made here of Connor Roscoe’s Sergeant; in this scene and in his dramatic interruption to the preceding Christmas dinner scene, Connor completely dominated the stage, making this much more than a mere cameo role.
The aforementioned vignette of Christmas dinner in the Gargery household also marked the welcome return to the QEGS stage of Mr Peter Hargreaves, who shone as Uncle Pumblechook, embodying the patronising, bullying and menacing adult world which surrounds Pip with equal amounts of Dickensian comic verve and bridging the shift from the forge to Satis House perfectly. Equally entertaining was Mr Simon Butterworth who, with his flawless comic timing, created a hilarious caricature in Mr Wopsle. When Pip’s narrative moved to London, Mr Butterworth resurfaced as a laconic, worldly-wise, yet highly personable Wemmick, clerk to Mr Jaggers.
As the focus of the action moved from the Gargery forge to Satis House, so we were introduced to the icy and eerie Miss Havisham of Eleanor Connell. Hers was yet another of the stellar performances of the evening, her sinister yet controlled characterisation commanding the stage; the scene in which she turns on her grasping relatives and assigns them all a place at her wedding/funeral table was just one of many memorable moments which will stay with us for months to come. We eagerly anticipate her even larger role in Part Two. Amy Roscoe as the child version of Estella was beautifully threatening, yet clearly magnetic both for the audience and for Pip, her contempt and spite towards him being almost palpable at times.
It is always heartening to see significant newcomers to the QEGS stage, and both evenings served to showcase an exciting new crop of thespian talent among our year sevens. One of the most prominent of these was Elizabeth Case, who, as Pip’s childhood friend and later housekeeper to the Gargery household, Biddy, delivered a wonderfully warm, reassuring characterisation – complete with an entirely convincing Kentish accent! - effortlessly and credibly embodying her role both as a young child and a young adult. She also doubled up ably as one of Mr Jaggers’ poor clients as the action moved to London.
Other year seven students contributed a number of striking cameos; Karima Shah added to the bullying of young Pip at Christmas dinner as Mrs Hubble, as well as playing Herbert Pocket’s little sister Jane and Jaggers’ mysteriously strong housekeeper Molly in the London scenes; Jessica Wharton-Jones showed real star potential as Miss Havisham’s snobbish and hypocritical relative Camilla; Alex Brown was full of affronted dignity as Matthew Pocket’s self-deluded wife Belinda; and Zac Jones ably played Jaggers’ somewhat slow client Mike and the silent role of Alec, another young member of the Pocket tribe.
This was a production which once again brought together students of all secondary ages; representing the sixth form this time was Christian Peel, who gave us both a suitably befuddled, hopeless Matthew Pocket and a growlingly violent Orlick, Joe’s vengeful, resentful journeyman. The climax of his quarrel scene with Mrs Joe and subsequent fist fight with Joe elicited spontaneous applause from the audience on both evenings. As the vicious, relentlessly tongue-lashing sister of Pip, who has brought him up “by hand” – and never lets him forget it! – Gabby Sandham dominated the opening scenes with her spiky, fast-paced delivery, another unsympathetic maternal role for her to follow her Mrs Casper in “KES” two years ago.
Two further staff cameos are worthy of mention; Mr Daniel Peat differentiated expertly between his two roles as the supercilious Cousin Raymond and Pip’s affable fellow student Startop; while Mr Tim Birtwistle made an auspicious QEGS stage debut, providing welcome and warm-hearted comedy late in the evening as the octogenarian and intensely deaf “Aged Parent”, father to Mr Butterworth’s Wemmick.
A lovely touch was the casting of brothers Hamza and Zak Bux as the young and adult Herbert Pocket respectively. As the “Pale Young Gentleman”, young Hamza was gamely willing to be knocked down by Rhys’ Pip, while Zak ideally projected the bonhomie of the shabby genteel and slightly chaotic Herbert, no mean feat when his chief medium for doing so was a very lengthy narrative scene which alone must surely have contained more lines than several of the smaller parts put together.
As Pip aged, so did the actor playing the role, and Seb Roberts took on the role part way through the first half. By this stage in the narrative, Pip has become a somewhat bland, even passive hero, especially once he becomes a “young fellow of Great Expectations”. As one of our finest character actors, whose Stanhope in last year’s “Journey’s End” still remains in many of our memories, this passivity was a challenge for Seb, which he rose to admirably, communicating successfully as he did Pip’s diffidence and awkwardness with his new status, as well as his somewhat unattractive and newly acquired snobbishness towards the faithful Joe.
This was, in fact, the focus of the scene chosen in Mr Ventress’ adaptation to conclude Part One, and, as such, it formed the play’s muted, yet emotional climax. The immensely touching performance of Will Gedling’s Joe here, socially inept and embarrassed in the presence of Pip’s new gentlemanly persona, achieved a dignity and moral authority which could not be dimmed by Pip’s censorious and frosty reception of him, brilliantly conveyed by Seb in the play’s closing moments. There were a number of damp eyes in the house as Joe’s parting words of “God bless you, Pip, old chap!” rang in our ears at the final curtain.
This was a hugely ambitious production which was performed with such confidence and conviction that all involved should be very proud. The fabulous rotating scenery designed and constructed by Mr Bendell and painted by Miss Bowker; the atmospheric lighting delivered by Miss Walmsley and sound by Mr Bendell and Miss Bowker , along with their team of student assistants, all contributed to the success of the evening. We left the hall with a world full of characters in our minds, full of even more great expectations for Part Two, to be staged in the Trinity Term. We will most definitely be back for more…
Mrs K L Perkins