It is more than 20 years since the RSC's adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby became a famous theatre event. Those with long, fond memories looking for something comparably epic and picturesque may find this second RSC encounter with Dickens disappointing.
It's the same author and the same company (well, up to a point, the RSC having effectively subcontracted this show to Cheek by Jowl), but a very different novel which is much more focused on a close-knit group of characters. There is little of the sense in Dickens' earlier work that we are meeting extraordinary, largerthan-life people for their own sake.
So the hallmarks of this production from the Cheek by Jowl team, director Declan Donellan and designer- adaptor Nick Ormerod, are directness and clarity. One of the few Pickwickian diversions they allow themselves is a glimpse of Mr Wopsle's performance as Hamlet - but who could resist that in this theatre?
Their narrative method is to have the company on stage throughout, acting as a kind of chorus which shares the firstperson narrative of the central character, Pip. This device may sound odd, but actually proves self-explanatory and works well.
A limited number of locations is evoked simply rather than spectacularly. Sian Phillips, as Miss Havisham, is literally wheeled on and off in her cobwebby room, as is the Gargerys' humble abode, and a solid-looking backdrop evokes a glum London street.
Most minimal but evocative of all are the scenes on the river and marshes, largely a matter of lighting conjuring up streaky grey skies which speak powerfully to the imagination. The image of Pip's sister's funeral, as the bonneted and top-hatted company walk slowly across the stage in silhouette, could not be simpler or more telling.
The marshy gloom seems to put a dampner from the start on Pip's dream of rising from being an apprentice to his blacksmith brother-in-law to a gentleman of independent but mysterious means, bestowing a sense of fatalism to the whole enterprise.
It would be surprisng if the acting weren't good and there are arresting performances from Samuel Roukin as Pip, from Sian Phillips and from Neve McIntosh as Estella, the instrument Miss Havisham has shaped to take her revenge on the male sex.
Though comedy is in limited supply the realm of Dickens' more convivial, less troubled souls delivers several notable contributions including Brian Doherty's Joe Gargery and Julius D'Silva's Pumblechook.
* Running time: Three hours. Until Feb 4.