Review by Sam Waite
Finishing its run on BBC Radio 4 a decade ago, Bleak Expectations brought surrealist and nonsensical humour to a both loving and mocking pastiche of Charles Dickens – chiefly, its namesakes, Bleak House and Great Expectations. Premiering at the Watermill Theatre roughly a year ago, the stage adaptation of Bleak Expectations is now making its West End debut at the Criterion Theatre, but is it the best of times or… well, you know the rest.
Much like the radio series, the play finds us in the company of narrator Sir Phillip Bin, richest man in England and inventor of the rubbish bin. Here the narrator is an ever-changing role, played by a new guest star each week – the press night has fallen on Sally Phillips’ turn in the part, while later weeks will find the likes of Stephen Mangan, Jo Brand, and even original series star Tom Allen. Jokes are made of such a familiar face gracing the stage, just in case anyone thought this was a show where they might find any level of seriousness.
Pip Bin’s story begins with his and his sisters’ births – like all English males of the time, he tells us, he was born fully grown and properly clothed. From there, riffs plot beats from both Dickens’ works and the original series play out, as the Bin family patriarch passes away, leaving his wife to descend into madness (the only options for women at the time, beyond immediate remarriage to someone dreadful) and Pip, Pippa, and Poppy to suffer under the guardianship of the ironically named Gently Benevolent. Having Pip’s 18th birthday moved forward, Benevolent intends to have the young man killed at his new boarding school while forcing Pippa into marriage to gain their sizeable inheritance.
The cast are all capable comedians, more than able to land their endless array of jokes and physical gags – unfortunately, there isn’t enough real distinction of character or variety of humour to allow many of them a moment to truly shine. Marc Pickering does hilarious, over-the-top work as the Hardthrashers, a family of near-identical antagonists, while Rachel Summers also stands out first as slightly air-headed younger sister Poppy, and in the second act brings increasingly frustrated desire to love interest Ripely Fecund. The villainous Gently Benevolent, portrayed here by John Hopkins, is funny but generically evil and representative of a recurring issue with the characterisations – once a joke has landed, it will be used ad-nauseum for the remainder of the evening.
Mark Evans’ script does have some very strong moments – though many of them end up blunted by repetition. The Narrator role, with which Phillips was clearly having a great deal of run, allows the piece to comment on the nature of theatre and storytelling. A simple moment which I found hysterical in its simplicity found The Narrator’s chair moved onto the stage with them already sat in it – “Wheee,” they said, deadpan and droll, as if this was somehow a frivolous and fun moment while still completely serious and barley of interest. Other gags, such as the perpetually clumsy father’s frequent announcement of, “I’m fine!” following a mishap, or the sight gag of Pippa hauling around the anvil her late father gifted her, start out very funny but grow slightly tiresome as the evening continues.
Katie Lias’s set design goes a long way towards setting the scene before the play even begins. Her take on the nondescript but stately homes the costume-dramas parodied are often set in features a climbing way of books, perhaps a nod to the storytelling nature of the piece and the adult Pip’s reading to us aloud – later, to represent the filthy streets of London’s poorest neighbourhood (Islington, to the crowd’s delight) the wall is adorned with piles of the same rubbish coating the city streets and inspiring Pip’s self-named invention. Her costumes, similarly, could be taken directly from a more traditional period piece, and clarify the setting the moment you lay eyes on them.
With lighting by Andrew Exeter, this simple sets seamlessly becomes a myriad of locations – be it the office at the boarding school, a dimly lit prison cell, or the filthy streets of a pre-bin London. As for the direction, Caroline Leslie has done strong work in keeping the performances moving along some degree of character arc but, unfortunately, she hasn’t been able to bring any real distinction to the humour. Evans and Leslie both sell the running jokes and loving pastiche’s of the genre, but the lack of real distinguishing features in each character’s personality or sense of humour had me wondering if this particular story may have been better suited to a tighter, one act structure.
Often very funny but showing signs of strain in its change of mediums, Bleak Expectations still managed to provide an enjoyable evening at the theatre, and often had me thinking it was completely stupid – a compliment, with this kind of show. Perhaps too reliant of the strengths of its guest performers, the play is still a solid piece of parodic comedy and, with some fine tuning, could prove to be a long-time favourite for many in search of a light-hearted, unchallenging evening of entertainment. Honestly, after the last few years, that’s more than enough reason to recommend it.
Bleak Expectations plays at the Criterion Theatre until September 3rd.
For tickets and information visit https://bleakexpectations.com