Melissa Blease reviews Great Expectations, on at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 9 June

Abandonment, child exploitation and poverty; corruption, class structure and guilt; obsession, desire and shame – if you’re looking for a bit of theatrical escapism, Tilted Wig Productions’ bold new retelling/adaptation/deconstruction of Charles Dickens’ penultimate novel, first published in 1861, most definitely isn’t for you. If, however, you’re in the mood for an artfully delivered, skilfully scripted, harrowing saga that spans several gloomy decades and takes almost three hours to tell, prepare to have your expectations met.

It can’t be easy adapting one of Dickens’ darkest, most sprawling tales for a new stage version, but by remaining more or less faithful to the original plot, Ken Bentley has kept the story largely on track. Most definitely off-track when it comes to tradition, however, is the rather odd set – a claustrophobic, clumsy, crate-like contraption that adds little to the overall experience – and some ‘quirky’ directorial diktats that further complicate an already convoluted plot. Fortunately, the strength of the leading characters compensate for the production pitfalls.

Sean Aydon is thoroughly simpatico as orphan Philip ‘Pip’ Pirrip, the little boy whose woeful existence takes a distinctly fateful upturn as the plot rolls along. Daniel Goode is properly sinister/villainous/scary as convict Magwitch; Edward Ferrow likeable and lovely as blacksmith (and Pip’s foster-dad) Joe Gargery and, in the role of Estella – the haughty beauty who captures Pip’s heart – Isla Carter is deliciously vile; if you listen carefully, these are the characters who deliver some of the play’s most hauntingly beautiful lines. But it is Nichola McAuliffe as the crazy, reclusive, long-since-jilted bride Miss Havisham who steals the show, thrumming with passive-aggressive self-pity, her emotions as devitalised, ragged and decomposed as her decaying wedding dress as she attempts to subtly groom and manipulate the young people in her orbit to become as bitter, disappointed and frustrated as she is. Anyway….

Pip assumes that Miss Havisham isn’t all bad – in fact, he believes she’s the mystery benefactor who turned his life around. But is she or isn’t she? And is Estella really a major man-hater, or is she emotionally damaged and  misunderstood? And who actually murdered Pip’s horrible big sister? If you don’t know the ending (Dickens wasn’t altogether sure of it himself, so there are two versions to choose from) it’s well worth waiting for; even if the second half dips in terms of pace and energy compared with the first before we reach the denouement, our great expectations are ultimately fulfilled.