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Great Expectations (Central Studio - Basingstoke)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Hotbuckle Productions’ Great Expectations is one of a number of Charles Dickens classics currently touring the country to coincide with the author’s bicentenary year and, like others, faces the challenge of mounting a typically epic Dickensian story on a decidedly 21st century budget.

The play tells, of course, the story of Pip who is plucked from his humble beginnings and set on a path to become a gentleman by a mystery benefactor, encountering along the way some of Dickens’ great collection of characters, including the legendary Miss Havisham.

First published in 1860/61 in 36 weekly instalments, the original text is neither economical in length (some 668 pages and 189,000 words) nor scale (around 30 named characters, and extravagant settings such as Miss Havisham’s gothic Satis House). Adrian Preater’s new adaptation however, skillfully cuts this to the bone, reducing or omitting superfluous characters and plot lines, concentrating on the story at the heart of the tale.

Preater also directs a cast of just five (including himself), with a strong and consistent central performance by Henry Proffit, as Pip, around who the other performers create a myriad of other characters. Emily Lockwood plays an ice-cool Estella, coming into her own with a great comic characterization of Herbert Pockett and the homely Biddy. Bill Davidson makes a fine Joe Gargery, but is perhaps more assured in his role as Jaggers, and Fiona Leaning is both formidable in an excellent performance as Miss Havisham, and suitably humble as the kindly Wemmick. Adrian Preater bags the best roles for himself and takes full advantage, making memorable interpretations of the convict Abel Magwitch, Uncle Pumblechook, and Aged P.

The staging too is stripped bare, with just a handful of wooden crates and a muslin backcloth, but used creatively and with clever lighting effects, suggests just enough to stimulate the audience to imagine the rest. There are no props, so many actions are mimed, which is a little distracting at first, but it is a testament to the fine talents of the actors and the strength of the writing that, after a while, you are so engrossed that this no longer seems to matter.

All in all, a fine production, and Hotbuckle are to be applauded for bringing classics to regional audiences in such an accessible and entertaining way.