Great theatre can often explore the quandaries of our existence. It can expose unspoken truths of human nature. It can excoriate the morals and politics of an age. If you are expecting any of that, the Criterion Theatre is not the venue to which you should be heading. For Bleak Expectations is an unashamedly fun and unapologetically silly evening out. Leave your troubles outside as the MC of a nearby show would advise. Put simply Bleak Expectations is a welcome shot of serotonin into London’s West End.
Based on his award-winning Radio 4 series, Mark Evans‘ comedy is a hilarious mash-up of Dickensian stories and indeed a broader parody of the social mores of the 1800s.
From the off, we meet Sir Philip Bin, the inventor of the rubbish bin therefore the richest man in England. Also a novelist, he informs the audience that he will narrate tales of his youthful adventures that were never discussed in his many other books, such as A Story of Two Towns and Massive Dorrit.
In a brilliant wheeze, the show has a different celebrity narrator each week. While the likes of Sue Perkins, Adjoa Andoh, Julian Clary and Stephen Mangan are lined up to play the role in coming months, this week Sir Pip Bin was in the capable hands and handsome stick-on moustache of actress and comedian Sally Phillips. In hilarious form, she addressed an unfortunate member of the audience with the line “Your partner has a resting ditch face”.
Following young Pip Bin (an excellent Dom Hodson who is channels the quintessential awkward Englishness of an Alexander Armstrong or Robert Bathurst) from birth as a fully-grown, fully-clothed adult, to the unexpected and rather fishy death of his father (he was eaten by a raft of feral penguins seeking the fresh mackerel pate in his pocket) and his mother going mad. It truly is the worst of times when the family fortune falls into the hands of the children’s guardian, Mr Gently Benevolent, until Pip reaches his 18th birthday. In a reversal of Dicken’s notorious penchant for nominative determinism, Benevolent turns out to be “a complete bastard”. Played as a pantomime baddie with glorious moustache-twirling, villainous glee by John Hopkins, he despatches young Pip to a suitably malevolent boarding school to get…despatched permanently!
Bleak Expectations is so committed to entertaining its audience, there are no comedy approaches off limits. It freely mixes silliness with literary parodies. Pip and his sister Poppy receiving a pipe and a puppy as presents resulted in some challenging and beautifully timed wordplay. Pip’s mother Agnes losing her wits, manically channeling her grief into housekeeping results in a giddy visual gag after ironing her hand. Throwaway one-liners such as “St Reluctance, the least willing of the patron saints” litter the script meaning you are never far from a laugh.
References to Chekhov’s gun, Danny Dyer and a Meatloaf song were not what you might expect in a Dickens parody but work within the show’s swirling comedic energy. The show isn’t afraid to play with theatrical expectations either. Opening the second half, Sally Phillips’ narrator announces “And then I died” pretending that the only reason there was an interval was to increase the “trade of interval bar sales”. Similarly meta, a character’s condition is described as leaving them “weaker than a Criterion gin and tonic”.
The incredibly dexterous cast even managed to sneak in some gleeful ad-libs. When Pip encounters Bakewell Havertwitch in a graveyard (seems familiar), our protagonist attempts to free the convict from his chains with the use of his sister’s anvil (don’t ask). When this action took longer than planned, Hodson wryly commented that chains can prove “particularly fiddly on Press Night”.
Bleak Expectations is a show that revels in British eccentricity. There is a Monty Python vibe to the scene of corporal punishment in the boarding school. A prop of a cat that has been ironed flat is straight from the surreal play book of Harry Hill or The Mighty Boosh. Ultimately, the agreeably madcap whimsy of the piece is redolent of the self-aware, throwaway humour that has graced several recent West End comedies recently – it’s akin to The Dickens Play That Went Wrong.
While the running time of two hours twenty might slightly overstretch the joke, it certainly won’t leave you shortchanged and, please sir, wanting more.
What the Dickens! – it’s a ★★★★ 4-star rating