Charles Dickens’ 1861 late career novel Great Expectations is a beloved classic, with a macabre atmosphere and timeless depictions of obsession and cruelty.
In the pattern of the typical Dickens hero, Pip survives childhood neglect and a gauntlet of grotesque adults to obtain security and respectability.
Budding Theatre’s production honours the novel’s gothic roots, with dreamlike vignettes where Pip (Reuben Reynolds as a child, and then Bertram O’Brien as a young man) is thrust into disorienting encounters with oily and eccentric characters.
Chris McGrane summons a gravel voice for the menacing fugitive convict Magwitch, Joan White is imperious and tortured as the iconic Miss Havisham, and Leigh Daniel Taafe is down-to-earth as Pip’s kind-hearted brother-in-law Joe.
George S. Walker meanwhile steals scenes as Pip’s friend Herbert Pocket, interpreted with a flamboyant flourish as a romcom ‘gay best friend’.
O’Brien centres the show with a compelling performance, convincing in his self-obliterating adoration of the aloof and heartless Estella (Erin Bond).
The large cast of 20 had mixed age and experience, but understood their characters and pushed the story onward under the confident direction of Rhys Hekimian.
Producer and playwright Kirsty Budding’s brisk adaptation compresses the novel into less than 80 minutes, but chooses potent vignettes to unfold, and relishes Dickens’ brash but dextrous language, in particular the hypnotic articulations of hopeless love.
Pip’s snobbery, a powerful element from the novel, is glossed over, with a key sequence where the older Pip is embarrassed by a visit from the decent Joe omitted.
A finale that draws each cast member onstage to repeat a key line provided an effective close to the play, knitting together Pip’s experiences as a tapestry, but this approach buried the catharsis of Miss Havisham’s lurid comeuppance.
With Great Expectations, Budding Theatre continues to provide an entry point for young actors to explore their craft, with a moody and alert adaptation of a resonant classic.