I had great expectations. I had driven to Barrie for the latest Talk is Free Theatre (“TIFT”) show at the Mady Cenre for the Performing Arts adapted and directed by Richard Ouzounian from Charles Dickens’ novel, none other than Great Expectations.
TIFT are ardent champions of challenging drama such as
- Their co-production of Sondheim’s Assassins mounted twice
- Dani Girl, a musical about children with cancer
- Bulgakov’s Moliere, a complex play about politics & theatre
Ouzounian is usually a reliable bet from what I’ve seen recently, including Dani Girl and Jerry Springer The Opera.
I was mostly spellbound. The task of whittling a novel down to a single evening is not one undertaken lightly, and my hat’s off to those who have been part of this process, including earlier incarnations of the adaptation, alluded to in the Director’s notes.
For most of the performance I was thrilled. Ouzounian places Dickens’ novel in the hands –that is, the bodies and voices—of four actors. We’ve seen how theatrical Dickens can be in films and stage adaptations of the novels (such as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby). This is a novelist whose phrases can work beautifully in the mouth of a skilled actor, arguably better than Shakespeare considering he’s usually more intelligible to the average modern ear.
Ouzounian the adapter hands his work to Ouzounian the director, knowing that the ebb and flow can be respected, honoured, and properly championed by his cast. For most of the play we’re in the presence of a virtuoso ensemble, including stunning moments that will bring tears to your eyes for all the right reasons.
Alex Poch-Goldvin has to be seen. As Jaggers the lawyer he’s funny but crisp & precise. As Magwitch, the beneficent deus ex machina, he’s able to scare us, then suddenly win us over with his essential goodness. And then from time to time his ghostly presence appears in what must be a dream role for a mature actor namely Ouzounian’s fascinating take on Miss Havisham (darker than Lady Bracknell). For most of the performance I was so hypnotized I’d forgotten I was watching a man portray a woman.
Carson Nattrass inhabits two vastly different yet completely lovable figures from the novel, namely Joe Gargery and Herbert Pocket. In both cases his portrayals are as much a product of physical eloquence as vocal skill, such lovely work that I couldn’t take my eyes off him in either part.
Alicia Toner’s to do list is simply to be all cornerstones of femininity in Pip’s world: his mother-figure (Joe’s wife), his ideal woman (Estella), and the good girl he’s too dazed to notice (Biddy), and if that weren’t enough, she plays the violin too. As with Poch-Goldvin and Nattrass, the portrayals are varied, powerful, moving, and must be credited as much to the tag-team of Ouzounian the adapter + Ouzounian the director, as to the skilled actor.
Finally, the cornerstone of this foursome is the very likeable presence of Justin Goodhand as Pip. If we’re in awe of the men and women around Pip, the reason we care about any of them is because of Goodhand’s wide-eyed wonderment.
Excellent as those performances are they deserve better. The finished product is marred by a couple of features that prevent the audience from exploding with wild applause that’s properly deserved for these brilliant performances.
1) In his Director’s notes Ouzounian explains the rationale for a series of voice-overs attempting to encompass the two hundred years since Dickens’ birth: to commemorate the novelist’s bicentennial. But the voices were a digression that simply interrupted the flow of the show, adding little or nothing.
2) The show contains a very undistinguished series of songs. The hymn tune (I am not sure if it’s original or an existing tune) sounded lovely, while ‘London Pride’ didn’t sound too bad, although I think the arrangement needs work. The other songs? I am not sure if they serve their purpose.
The show has the dark ending from the earlier version of Dickens’ novel, a choice that’s completely workable so long as it seems to be decisive and intended, rather than a boat suddenly adrift. After an hour and forty-five minutes of brilliance the work ends not with a bang but a whimper. Perhaps my operatic tastes are showing, but I think Ouzounian is very close: needing a dramaturg and/or a composer to pull it all together. Notwithstanding the many instances of brilliance, maybe someone else should direct, as the additional set of eyes & ears could be helpful.
One song that recurs could pull it all together, although that might make the show unbearably commercial, and no I don’t pretend that this would be an easy task (dare I say it: something about Pip’s expectations?). But instead of the digressive entropy that those unhelpful historical voice-overs contribute –pulling us out of the hard-won illusion created by these wonderful actors—how about a series of interludes that are connected to the novel? Songs, musical interludes, dances, poems: but let them be Dickensian, not digressions into our own century. The energy is so intense that even if we had four or five opportunities to hear some instrumental music while watching a character respond or simply pose, it might be enough.
I remember hearing that songs –especially in musicals—should begin at the moment when they’re inevitable, when one can’t express the thought any further without the use of music. If the song isn’t necessary, then one shouldn’t do it. This show manages to fly even while carrying the dead weight of superfluous songs & voice-overs. That’s an amazing achievement.
There’s much to admire in this show. Go see TIFT’s Great Expectations at the Mady Centre for the Performing Arts in Barrie, until April 14th.