Beyond Expectations

Beyond Expectations markets itself as a reworking of the Dickens classic, but this time told from the perspective of the love interest, Estella. What we find instead is a compressed version of the novel that will leave anyone not familiar with the text scratching their heads and even those familiar with it likely doing the same at the bizarre production choices.

I don’t know if fans of the book will like the cuts to the character development, story and themes, and those who haven’t read the novel will have little to no investment in the skeleton plot that is left.

Paradoxically the main problem is that Estella is not featured enough. We never get a sense of who she is as a character, her development as a person or her relationships with other people. Shifts in her personality occur without warning or explanation and she is as much of a cypher at the end of the play as she is at the start. Despite the intention appearing to be to give her greater focus we instead go through all of the motions of the novel’s plot. Our main character is still ostensibly Pip from the moment he comes onstage and hijacks what little development Estella had been given up to that point. This is a shame as he’s probably the dullest character of the lot, falling in love with Estella on first sight and then spending the rest of the play pointlessly chasing her affections. I understand this is the story of the novel, but it’s so condensed here that we never get behind the romance; we don’t care about his love for Estella because quite frankly there doesn’t appear to be any reason for him to love her in the first place (aside from the script saying so).

This is the sort of story where characters talk about love a great deal but never get around to actually saying why they love someone; it’s all tell and no show. And since this is the crux of the entire narrative we have no motivation to follow the plot and instead spend our time picking at the many odd production choices. Why did they feel the need to have the narrator constantly washing his hands when it entails an overlong scene transition? Why they bothered with two elaborate puppets when they you can count the times they’re used on one hand and why did they use a projection screen when all of the actors stand in front of said screen, leading to a wonderful moment where Mrs Havisham appears to be sitting inside a burning fireplace whilst talking casually to Pip.

The projection itself is hit and miss. When it’s used to set the mood and create backdrops it’s surprisingly effective and atmospheric but when video is used concurrently with the action on stage it’s just jarring and distracting, leaving scenes that would otherwise be incredibly tense or dramatic, dull or at worst hilarious. The cast is however largely without fault and in particular Mrs Havisham is delivered with a hateful glee that made me enjoy her appearances on stage.

The problem with this production is the missed opportunity it represents. Estella is a fascinating female lead and putting her under the microscope could make a wonderful character study; indeed the play’s best moment is a wonderfully tender scene between her and Mrs Havisham at the older woman’s weakest point. Scenes like this are in short supply, and the rest of the show just plays like Great Expectations abridged.

It’s difficult to know who this production is aimed at. I don’t know if fans of the book will like the cuts to the character development, story and themes, and those who haven’t read the novel will have little to no investment in the skeleton plot that is left. In essence this show doesn’t go beyond anyone’s expectations, great or otherwise.

Reviews by Joseph McAulay

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The Blurb

Combining puppetry, music and striking digital projections, Beyond Expectations explores themes of love, revenge and destiny. This innovative production re-imagines Charles Dickens' beloved novel Great Expectations, recounting events from the perspective of Estella. We follow her story from its beginnings on a Gypsy encampment to the timeless decay of life with Miss Havisham, through an empty, loveless marriage. Only Pip’s love can survive her destructive charms – but when hope is gone, is love enough? A Victorian Gothic tragedy, this adaptation weaves brand new scenes into Dickens’ original tale.