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Inexcusably unfamiliar with the Dickens classic (I’d neither studied it at school, nor read it for “pleasure”), I had no expectations whatsoever, hence why I found myself mesmerised both by the strength of the plot, along with the versatility of the large cast (no less than thirteen people were in “company”) tasked with the job of bringing such an epic story to life.

Given ERT’s relatively small stage, it could have gone disastrously wrong with so many cast members, yet Ed Ullyart’s ingenious set design – dominated by what resembled the front of a house, possessing sections that opened up as and when required – meant that the various actors and actresses breezed on, around and back off-stage with ease.

Throwing the audience straight into the action, the opening scene witnesses a young boy, an orphan called Pip, stealing a pie from his guardians (his elder sister and her husband, Joe) in order to feed an escaped convict, Magwitch, who he encounters in the graveyard where his parents are buried.

As the story progresses, Pip finds himself invited over to the house of an eccentric and embittered old lady called Miss Havisham. Living with the lady there is a beautiful young woman called Estella, with whom Pip gradually – and inevitably – falls in love.

Years down the line, with the actor playing Pip having changed from Joel Walker to Tom McNulty by way of a cleverly-executed “transition” scene, Pip comes into a considerable pot of money courtesy of a mysterious benefactor, duly moving to London. He naturally assumes such a benefactor to be Miss Havisham, though he is sorely mistaken, the truth of the matter throwing his well-ordered life into disarray.

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Adapting such a mammoth book can’t have been easy for Vince Regan (well-known for having acted in Hollywood blockbusters “Troy,” “300” and “Clash of the Titans”), yet he’s worked wonders with the script, distilling the essence of the story with utmost respect. Fortunately, Vince and Director Andrew Pearson have had an extraordinarily talented cast with which to work, almost all cast members highly experienced on both stage and screen.

Stephen Frost’s larger-than-life portrayal of Magwitch couldn’t be better, nor could Janet Prince’s wholly convincing turn as Miss Havisham, an iconic character who literally lives in her wedding dress.

Come the end of Act II, I was so absorbed, so entranced, that I struggled to resurface in reality, the length of the second act (one hour twenty minutes) having enabled me to get into the story to such an extent that I found it difficult to ease myself back out of it. Such comprehensive absorption came about thanks to the impeccable quality of acting, Tom McNulty’s mature and charismatic performance as Pip a true pleasure to witness. Having trained at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Tom had previously appeared in “A Christmas Carol” and “Sparrow” at ERT. Possessing the confident, fast-talking air of Michael McIntyre, Tom more than proved his worth as an actor, his name definitely one to watch.

Those lucky enough to have seen ERT’s production of “Hamlet” earlier in the year would no doubt have recognised the actors playing Joe and Wemmick, for the talents of Peter McMillan and Gordon Meredith had shone equally as brightly in “Shakespeare Mode.”

All Production Team members were just as much to thank for the arresting, captivating nature of this particular stage adaptation, Sarah Brignall’s movement coaching having helped all cast members to make the most of the space they had on stage. Sarah’s training with Jacques Lecoq in Paris certainly reaped dividends, the clever way in which a number of actors simulated the cross-country pursuit of Magwitch (along with a fellow escapee) breathtaking to witness.

Given the time-period in which “Great Expectations” is set, esteemed Costume Designer Edwina Jackson had clearly had a field day in creating no end of eye-catching garments. No stranger to designing Victorian-era costumes, she’d also worked on “A Christmas Carol” and “Oliver Twist” in previous years.

Replete with enough twists and turns to keep the most avid whodunit fan happy, ERT’s adaptation of “Great Expectations” is a joy to watch from start to finish.

In a word: outstanding.

(Steve Rudd)

“Great Expectations” will run at ERT in Beverley until Saturday 7th January, 2017

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