'Bleak Expectations' review — a Dickensian comedy that lacks character

Read our review of Bleak Expectations, directed by Caroline Leslie, now in performances at the Criterion Theatre through 3 September.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Now this is a coincidence. Eddie Izzard’s West End run in Great Expectations, an adaptation previously acclaimed in New York, is opening this week hot on the heels of Dickens's Bleak Expectations, which heard decidedly mixed results. I wonder whether the two productions might complement one another. Let’s just say that I emerged from this BBC Radio 4 stage iteration not yearning for this Dickensian mashup but for the genuine wit of the real thing.

What’s on offer at the Criterion resembles an agreeable enough college jape pushed to breaking point and beyond across two and a half hours. These sorts of spoofs, whether they are Forbidden Broadway or the Reduced Shakespeare Company, make a virtue of brevity. But there’s a limit to how endearing it is to watch a ridicule of “that sentimental hack, Charles Dickens,” before you find yourself wondering what the Dickens this writer did to deserve such hostility?

He wrote a lot of novels. That's the short answer. Literature buffs will thrill at the multiple nods not just towards Great Expectations but to David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and lesser-known titles like Little Dorrit and Nicholas Nickleby – that last being put on the theatrical map by the Royal Shakespeare Company some 40 years ago.

Pip’s school, St Bastard’s, has as headmaster Wackwell Hardthrasher, which, as names go, isn’t a patch on Nickleby’s one-eyed schoolmaster, Wackford Squeers. Oliver Twist is most memorably referenced via the plaintive request, “Please, sir, may I have some less?”

Seen last summer at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, Berkshire, author Mark Evans’s let’s-try-anything pastiche relates the life and times of Pip Bin (Dom Hodson) on the way to inventing the receptacle for rubbish to which he lends his surname.

Pip’s story is presented retrospectively by his ageing self, who is played across the run by a sequence of guest stars, each allotted a week to strut their stuff. I saw the comic actress Sally Phillips, who had a script in hand and seemed determined to remind us of her lack of rehearsal time. The role, she reported, was like “theatrical bungee-jumping,” but I was still perplexed at the start of the second act when she jokes about sending the audience home.

After her, Tony Award winner Robert Lindsay (Me and My Girl) is continuing the role, but Phillips participated fully in the group hug at the end and fielded one particular corker about London’s bizarre proliferation of fried chicken shops. I would be curious to see what celebrities-in-waiting such as Julian Clary and Stephen Fry make of this task, though there’s a risk attached of piling archness upon archness, a game Phillips couldn’t fully resist.

The plot folds Play That Goes Wrong-style antics into Pip’s narrative picaresque, populated by memorably named folks, such as Flora Dies-Early, Mr Skinflint Parsimonious, and Mr. Broadly Fecund who, as might be expected, has 23 children.

The standout among director Caroline Leslie’s hardworking cast is the wonderful John Hopkins as Gently Benevolent, Pip Bin’s ward. His voice booming forth, this wrongdoer seems neither gentle nor warm-hearted, notwithstanding an unexpected affection for Chekhov. In a hilarious twist, he whips out a stuffed cat as his inkwell, delivering one of the funniest visual gags in the entire performance.

However, another scene sees cast member Marc Pickering transforming in an instant to the judge to various members of the jury in a trial scene – this came across as strenuousness, occasionally informed by inspiration and sometimes not.

Even comic exaggeration wears out its welcome if it isn’t anchored in some kind of truth. The script made some nods in that direction, like the running commentary on the subjugation of women as they protest for their right to vote. The Maximum Misogyny Act of 1800 mentioned here seems worrisomely to be making a comeback in our current times, too.

I loved the nod toward Victorian-era repression with the statement that a bride can die from the shock of physical contact with a man, and there’s a droll moment where a bonkers mum emerges from a grandfather clock championing “votes for linen.” These coexist with such groaners as “you can’t handle the tooth” that may make certain playgoers seek the comparative peace and quiet of other activities. Like, say, reading a book.

Bleak Expectations is at the Criterion Theatre through 3 September. Book Bleak Expectations tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: Dom Hodson, John Hopkins, Ashh Blackwood, Serena Manteghi, and Rachel Summers in Bleak Expectations. (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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