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Bleak Expectations

by on 19 May 2023

What the Dickens

Bleak Expectations

by Mark Evans

Anthology Theatre and Glass Half Full Productions at the Criterion Theatre, West End until 3rd September

Review by Eugene Broad

In this effervescent spoof, every Dickensian motif one can imagine is pastiched, riffed on, subverted, gently ridiculed, poached, and served to the audience with a hearty helping of winks, nods and elbow nudges.

The whimsical plot of the radio show’s first season is condensed into two hours of Dickensian spoofery.  To summarise, the “ghost of future self” narrator  (each week, a different celebrity guest; this week was Sally Phillips, perhaps best known as “Shazza” from Bridget Jones’ Diary) recalls their younger self’s life-story.

Our protagonist is the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Pip Bin (Dom Hodson), who: frees a mysterious prisoner as a young man; is then orphaned after his father is murdered by penguins and his mother goes insane; has his sister abducted by a pantomime nemesis, Gently Benevolent (John Hopkins) to marry into the Bin family fortune; is sent to a boarding-school workhouse; and goes on to make a fortune in London, with nearly everyone getting a happy ending.

Originally a long-running award-winning BBC radio show of the same name is adapted for stage, hosted in Piccadilly Circus’ Criterion Theatre.

It always seems most fun and satisfying to play a villain, and the villains of the show gave the heartiest performances.  John Hopkins as the chief antagonist, Gently Benevolent (a subversion of expectations on Dickens’ propensity for nominative determinism), gives a classic pantomime villain vibe – a deep villainous laugh, a moustache he can twirl, and an affinity for nitroglycerine.  Marc Pickering as the various Hardthrasher siblings is a scene-stealer whenever he appears.  Yet the villains have more freedom and depth to ham up their characters; the protagonists are constrained by their treacle-sweet boyish enthusiasm and optimism.

The set design (Katie Lias) is fun, imaginative and three dimensional, making the most of the stage.  Inventively, elements of the comedy come from both the set design and props, including a Scooby Doo-esque fight-chase scene.  Likewise, both the sound design (Ella Wahlstrom) and lighting (Andrew Exeter) is creatively used for humorous effect and is a core element in allowing the cast to shine to their full potential.  Scenes such as Pip’s fever dream, being visited by the ghost of his father, or Gently using a kitten as an inkwell, would simply not hit the same without the lighting, sound, and movement direction (Joyce Henderson).

Virtually every comedic device one can think of is used by the production – fourth wall breaks, call-back jokes, all forms of wordplay, Blackadder-esque metaphoric absurdism, subversion, physical comedy, cartoon logic, non-sequiturs, anachronistic references, and witty one liners – no comedic stone is left unturned.  Delivered with oodles of energy, gusto and momentum by a talented cast and crew, when it lands, it lands well – but by the end it can start to feel a little repetitive and predictable.

That isn’t to say that the script is to blame, but the viewer is essentially binging 180 minutes of a radio show, condensed into two hours.  Rather, it’s a comfort-food comedy with a twee setting and familiar caricatures of the Victorian era.  With future celebrity guest narrators such as Alexander Armstrong and Stephen Fry, it’s easy to see how they’ll fit into such a show – which in itself should give an idea of the sort of comedic direction and timing the show panders towards.  It’s good, wholesome, comedic company to lean into, but usually best served in smaller portions.

There’s no need to be a veteran of the radio show to enjoy the production.  In fact, in some ways that may be better, as the plot will be entirely new and the jokes will hit for the first time, although there is also plenty of original material.  Likewise, there is no need to be deeply familiar with the work of Dickens – it can add an additional meta level of understanding to the humour, but the caricature of the cultural references used are so ubiquitous anyone will understand it.  On the other hand, having a decent grasp of pop culture references could be useful, given reasonably frequent name-dropping.  (I was not expecting that Swan reference!)

Overall, Bleak Expectations offers an evening of entertaining and harmless fun, which isn’t trying to be ground-breaking or innovative – and really, like a good mac and cheese – it doesn’t need to be.  If you do plan to go, pick your celebrity guest carefully.  As some parts are unstructured or ad-libbed, each celebrity guest will surely leave their own signature on the show.

Eugene Broad, May 2023

Photography by Manuel Harlan

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