Bleak Expectations ★★★ Criterion Theatre | May 3 - Sep 3, 2023

It is sometimes a clever spoof, it is sometimes a rather laboured affair, it hits some funny notes, it has some pretty flat moments. Originally a comedy series on BBC Radio 4, Bleak Expectations parodies the works of Charles Dickens and takes on the perceived values of Victorian Britain. It comes to the West End with a series of celebrity guest stars taking on the role of the narrator, Pip Bin. Throughout the summer, Stephen Fry, Sue Perkins, Julian Clary, Lee Mack, Stephen Mangan, Tom Allen, Nish Kumar, Jo Brand, Ben Miller and Alexander Armstrong among others will all assume the part. On this occasion, Sally Phillips donned a moustache to recount the tale, while her young self was played by Dom Hodson. The latter does an excellent job as the amusingly dense, but well-meaning, protagonist. He credibly, and credulously, plays straight man to all the silliness going on around him. Also in fine form is John Hopkins as the villain of the piece, while Marc Pickering, who becomes the four Hardthrasher siblings, manages to steal most of the scenes he is in. The problem here is that the skits which worked on the radio show seem rather drawn out and lose their effervescence when stretched over two hours. The comedy is very broad and will appeal to those who enjoy a good panto. It abounds with terrible puns and comic anachronisms. Some knowledge of Dickens' works is an asset to appreciate the lampooning of the novelist's sentimentality, his love of coincidence and his goofy names, but it isn't really a requirement. Although the humour flags now and then, Bleak Expectations has lots of energy and many madcap moments.

Rated: ★★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Photo by Manuel Harlan.

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