REVIEW: Great Expectations, Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, until Saturday, October 27.

Great Expectations were raised only to be largely dashed on a disappointing night where, Oliver-like, we were certainly left wanting more.

Graham McLaren’s “lavish, spectacular and unashamedly theatrical” production proved to be none of these things, offering instead Dickens on hard times, an on-the-cheap production which limply attempted to make a virtue of its necessity.

With Dickens you expect broad sweep, large cast, changing vistas. Instead, we didn’t move from the tragically-faded elegance of Miss Havisham’s once-opulent parlour. Here Pip and Estella meet in the present before Pip delves down memory lane to conjure the characters from his past who now pass before us as he seeks to make sense of the man he has become.

It makes for a terribly dull night for Pip the elder who simply hovers as a bystander for most of the evening while young Pip, with a jaunty off-the-shoulder cobweb as some kind of symbolic something, takes centre stage.

Instead of the Thames, we get darkness and a load of upturned umbrellas being wafted gently. Lavish and spectacular? School assembly, more like. Of course, the audience needs to be complicit in the great adventure of the imagination which lies at the heart of any stage enterprise, but here we needed just a little bit more from the actors - an explanation, for instance, as to why the world’s most irritating poet seems to have latched on to a blacksmith and his wife.

With nowhere to go on their static set, there’s no recourse to the actors other than to jump on and off the table - except when one of them, just to ring the changes, leaps up onto the mantlepiece. Dickens is epic. Much of this is merely silly, particularly in a frankly-boring first half.

Things lift considerably in the second, particularly thanks to Paula Wilcox, excellent as the poisonous Miss Havisham coming to a tragic awareness of the extent of her self-indulgent villainy; Chris Ellison meanwhile brings nobility to the role of the mystery benefactor.

But overall - maybe a little because of the vastness of the Mayflower - this single-set show has the Dickens of a time getting going.

Phil Hewitt