Bleak Expectations - Criterion Theatre - Review
These days, screen to stage adaptations is about as common as Sunday roasts and train strikes, but something that is perhaps a little bit less common in the world of theatre is a radio to stage adaptation, but here we are.
‘Bleak Expectations’ a comedy by Mark Evans premiered on BBC Radio 4 back in 2007, and has proved wickedly popular since, with the show still being broadcast on a regular basis on BBC Radio 4 Extra. A pastiche of the works of Charles Dickens, it follows Phillip ‘Pip’ Bin as he goes on various adventures to thwart the plots of his horrible guardian, Mr Gently Benevolent. The piece is narrated by an adult Pip, looking back at his life. A novelisation of the first series was released in 2012, and last year it made its stage debut at the Watermill Theatre. It’s now running at the Criterion Theatre with a different celebrity narrator each week.
You are drawn into the world of ‘Bleak Expectations’ as soon as you enter the auditorium, with modern pop songs given a classical twist playing over the speakers and a grand home on stage, with a stack of books in place of a staircase. The narrator (played by Dermot O’Leary when I saw the show) sets the scene and the audience are introduced to the Bin family, and laughter quickly follows.
Here, Dom Hodson plays Pip, the innocent believer that everything will turn out alright, and he makes the character his own, making the audience will him on to succeed and winning them over with his cheeky smile and bundles of energy. Barely off stage, he holds the story together as Pip strives to achieve his dreams and do the best for his family. His friendship with J.J Henry’s Harry Biscuit is charming, and the chemistry with Serena Manteghi and Rachel Summers as his sisters Pippa and Poppy respectively is sweet and believable. Manteghi has the audience in stitches with Pippa’s larger than life personality. Her facial expressions are brilliant and her clear to see physical comedy skills shine throughout the show. Summers, playing both Poppy and Ripely Fecund has a natural flair for making people laugh as does Henry as Harry Biscuit and Mr Parsimonious, with Biscuits being full of hilarious lines that are simply smile inducing.
John Hopkins revels in playing the villain of the piece, Gently Benevolent, part Dickensian gentleman, part child catcher in his characteristics. This is a character that everyone just loves to hate, making the back and forth between him and Hodson’s Pip all the more fun. Marc Pickering impresses greatly playing multiple different characters; the Hardthrashers, with the audience loving every time he appeared in his various different looks.
Performers playing multiple parts is a big thing in this production, and it just works so well. There’s no confusion over who is who, each character played by the same performer is unique and easy to follow. A perfect example of this lies in Shane David-Joseph’s performance as Thomas Bin/Bakewell Havertwitch and Broadly Fecund, amongst other roles. He skips from role to role with ease, making each one as individual as the last, displaying a natural gift for physical comedy and having some great fun with wordplay.
Ashh Blackwood is hilarious as Agnes Bin and Flora Dies-Early, clearly loving every moment of it. She brings a wonderful energy to the stage with every appearance. Also, look out for Emily Water’s Lily, little moments that make a lot of difference here.
The narrator is a vital role in this production, and Dermot O’Leary was clearly having an absolute ball with it. The clever set allows the narrator to walk above the action a lot, but also to directly interact with it, all without ever feeling as if they’ve shoehorned the character in. The narrator fits, it works, and it keeps the link to the radio show shining strong and bright.
There is something wonderfully self-aware about this production, there is a wide understanding that it’s silly, it’s over the top and it’s supposed to be a good laugh, and this is evident in every cast member’s performance. References to more recent news are slipped into the Dickensian settings, with the narrator directing addressing the audience throughout with nods to the interval and the price of the ice creams getting many a laugh. It is clear that the cast are loving every moment of it, and the more they enjoy it, the more the audience enjoys it.
Overall, ‘Bleak Expectations’ is a fresh new laugh out loud comedy that thrills and delights. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, it is crammed full of jokes, you don’t have to be a Dickens expert to follow along quite comfortably and there is just a great sense of fun with it. To put it simply, this show will make you smile, and what more could you want.