Review: Bleak Expectations, Criterion Theatre

Dickens spoof Bleak Expectations is often daftly delightful at the Criterion Theatre

“Number 13, Total Tosspot Street”

Comedy can be a tricky genre to nail – what one person finds hilarious might leave another stone-faced (qv One Man, Two Guv’nors…), the search for something that is objectively funny surely never destined to end. There’s also different levels of humour, which is where Bleak Expectations comes in for me, gently amusing throughout and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. It just hit the spot perfectly for an uncomplicatedly pleasurable evening in the theatre.

Transferring to the Criterion Theatre from the Watermill in Newbury where it ran last year (a venue that has since lost its Arts Council England funding – donate here if you can), it is a Dickensian romp in the mould of the Reduced Shakespeare Company or The Play That Goes Wrong. And since you gotta have a gimmick to break through in a crowded West End marketplace, this show comes complete with a roster of starry guest narrators from the world of comedy and beyond.

Mark Evans has adapted his own BBC Radio 4 comedy series here, though I’m the first to confess I’ve never listened to it. He starts off by introducing Pip Bin (played by the guest star, Robert Lindsay for our performance), a writer “better by far than that hack Charles Dickens” who then regales us with the tale of his life, which just happens to be a mash-up of Dickensian and Victorian tropes. Mysterious benefactors, strict schools, malevolent guardians, inconvenient demises…all are present and correct.

So too though, are marauding penguins, gifted anvils, grandfather clock prisons and strange bakers. And characters with names like Wackwell Hardthrasher and Flora Dies-Early. The daftness level is constantly high but the deftness of the wordplay is equally admirable, offering plenty of opportunities to chuckle and more. To castigate the production for not dealing with the Victorian colonial legacy or misrepresenting contemporary female business ownership seems to be missing the point rather, it’s OK just to not find it that funny.

It does perhaps stretch its running time a little far, essentially being one long gag. But the company perform with such enthusiasm (Dom Hodson’s younger Pip is brilliantly earnest, Marc Pickering’s tireless multi-roling is genius and John Hopkins’ moustache-twirling villain Gently Benevolent is lots of fun, although poor kitten!!). And the wildcard that is the guest narrator means that there’s an amusing sense of jeopardy baked into each performance. Harrumble indeed.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Bleak Expectations is booking at the Criterion Theatre until 3rd September
Guest narrator schedule:
3- 7 May: Nina Wadia,
9-14 May: Dermot O’Leary,
16-21 May: Sally Phillips,
23-28 May: Robert Lindsay,
30 May – 4 June: Sue Perkins,
6-11 June: Julian Clary,
13-18 June: Adjoa Andoh,
20-25 June: Craig Ferguson,
27 June – 2 July: Lee Mack,
4-9 July: Stephen Mangan,
11-16 July: Jo Brand,
18-23 July: Tom Allen,
25-30 July: Jack Dee,
1-6 August: Alexander Armstrong,
8-13 August: Stephen Fry,
15-20 August: Ben Miller,
29 August – 3 September: Nish Kumar.

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