Hugh Leonard’s stage adaptation betrays his life-long attachment to the work of Charles Dickens, especially Great Expectations.
“My great-aunt Julia lived in a ramshackle drunkard of a house … I remember an old woman dressed in unending dusty layers of grey and black who called to our house one day and presented me with a mildewed copy of Great Expectations and then pushed a halfpenny into my hand with the unassailable observation that as long as I kept it I would always have money. My new affluence was short-lived, for she returned the following day to inform my mother that ‘I want me bewk and me ha’penny back, if ye please’. … and although she retrieved both the coin … and the book, the harm had been done. I had already travelled the marshes with Pip, stolen bread for Magwitch and nearly had a seizure when uncle Pumblechook drank the tar water…”
So wrote Hugh Leonard in his memoir Home Before Night. In the 1960s Leonard forged a reputation in writing both for stage and for the new medium of television, and in 1967 adapted the first of many classic works as TV serials, mainly for the BBC in Britain. This was of course Great Expectations. In the early 1990s, Leonard returned to Great Expectations and adapted it for the stage for the Gate Theatre in a production directed by Alan Stanford. Hugh Leonard’s adaptation continues to be staged by professional and amateur groups. It has been described as “bringing to life all the vivid characters of the original and conveying the story with great clarity, atmosphere and theatrical flair”.
The cast comprises nine male and six female with some doubling possible. In his adapter’s note to the published edition Leonard wrote of his stage play “There are two Pips, not for reasons of stagecraft, but because there are two in Dickens’ book: the country boy and the young man he becomes. I have tried to reflect this duality by doubling some of the other parts and by stressing the double life of that delightful schizophrenic, Wemmick”. It has been staged with a set comprising three thematic zones that are otherwise minimalist.
Leonard has also adapted A Tale of Two Cities for the stage.