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Culford Pupils Perform Great Expectations


Drama at Culford has built such a name for itself, that when tickets went on sale for the Senior School production Great Expectations, the play sold out within two weeks. Expectations of great things indeed, and the production definitely lived up to them in every way.

Packed houses enjoyed a spectacle that included inventive ensemble theatre and masterful individual performances, all delivered with a pace and style that gave the well-loved Dickens tale a new twist.

The adaptation by Culford's Director of Drama, Maria Jackson, featured three ensembles that supported the key characters of Pip and Estella as they grew from children to adults. Young Pip was played with a wonderful mixture of pathos and cheek by Charlie Stephens (L5). He brought energy and innocence to the way he faced the trials presented to him by Mrs Joe, played with vicious relish by Eleanor Gillis (U6). He portrayed the naivety required as he is presented to Young Estella with a real understanding of the way he was being manipulated.

Emily Hope’s (U5) Young Estella was prim and haughty, and a perfect foil for the out-of-depth Pip. When in dire straits, Young Pip would always turn to Joe Gargery, played excellently by Oliver Beresford (U6). Oliver beautifully captured the initial camaradie between the two, which later becomes vital support to adult Pip, proving they are ‘ever the best of friends’, a parting line Oliver delivered with heartfelt emotion.


Perhaps the most famous character from Great Expectations is Miss Haversham, and Harriet Kirby-Smith (U6) bought a delicacy and mesmerising quality to her performance that was outstanding. This was no banshee of a ditched bride, but a contained, fluid, gentle and elegant figure with a mellifluous voice who cast her own spell on us again and again. Rather than be repelled by her entrapment of Estella, we empathised with her need for companionship. Harriet is to be congratulated for the originality of her interpretation and for the depth of emotion she brought to this troubled character.

Ensemble theatre is fascinating to watch and in Great Expectations the audience were able to appreciate the cyclical nature of the presentation with the shifts of action being signified with the ensemble delivery of a sung version of Dickens’ ‘Old Clem’ poem. The piece opened with the ensembles performance and repeated it again during the transition from Young Pip to Old Pip. This enabled the cast change to take place seamlessly. Ensemble involvement meant almost all of the cast multi-roled, and brought interesting variety and really tested the strengths of the actors.

One such actor was Henry Jackson-Wells (U5) who played Compeyson, as well as the dithering clergyman Wopsle who describes himself as ‘amateur thespian of quite some note’. Henry captured the required wit beautifully, especially in the section of the production when Pip makes a visit to the theatre to see Wopsle give his Hamlet. Wopsle leapt on to the stage in doublet and hose, wig cap and wire rim glasses, all kneecaps and google eyes, and crucified Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, all with fervent comic intent.


Whilst on the subject of comedy, we must mention Anna Sutton’s (U6) perfect portrayal of the buffoon Pumblechook. Quintessentially Dickensian, Pumblechook’s giant belly appeared on stage first and was swiftly followed by a delightfully rounded character in every sense of the word. Anna is a consummate actress and excels at that most difficult of genres, comedy. She also played Wemmick, a lawyer’s clerk, and managed here too to infuse every moment with the required subtext, either through an appropriate gesture, word, or look and it was captivating.

A lengthy novel, a lengthy adaptation, and most certainly a lengthy appearance on stage for Joe Gilkes, (U6) who played adult Pip. On stage with only one exit for over two hours, Joe dominated with great confidence, masterminding the action throughout, indicating changes of location and emotion on the turn of a coin. He excelled in the exchanges with adult Estella, played excellently by Rebecca Beardmore (U6) with icy stillness, thinly disguising his jealousy over her love for another and exhibiting a poignant and subtle heartbreak when they finally parted, to the accompaniment of the final haunting rendition of ‘Old Clem’ sung beautifully by Young Estella (Emily Hope U5).

The mark of a great production is one that leaves the audience talking about the talent of an unexpected newcomer to the stage and Great Expectations was no exception. Ellis Kilbane’s (L5) performance of Magwitch was a revelation. From the violent and savage arrival in clanking chains when Magwitch first accosted young Pip in the churchyard; to the tender farewell to adult Pip in his dying moments, Ellis lived and breathed the experiences of this complex character. When he revealed the truth his pride was palpable. When he railed against the assembled company for their lack of faith in him, it was clear indeed that we were in the presence of an actor who feels genuine emotional depth and knows how to share it.

The production looked beautiful, dominated by a huge gold mirror frame through which we could see the two worlds of the novel; the marsh lands and Satis House, represented by trees and curtain swags, all covered in layer upon layer of dusty cobwebs. Havesham’s decaying wedding cake dominated centre stage and the wedding breakfast table, dilapidated, fraying and draped with dried-up roses, served as both table and stage for sections of the play. Darren Sykes’ imaginative lighting took us on evocative journey across the dank Kent marshes, from the haunting rooms of Satis house, to the bright salons of London society and the dangerous London docks. Maria Jackson's direction was meticulous, with attention paid to every detail making this an ingenious fast-paced production where every complex scene segued faultlessly into the next. It was cast expertly and every aspect, be that design, characterisation, or structure had obviously been given the utmost consideration. The sense of pride from the pupils in what they had achieved was clear to see and all should be very proud to have played a part in this magnificent production.
Published: December 5 2016

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