Bleak Expectations at the Criterion Theatre review: mediocre Dickens parody chunters along

Dom Hodson, Serena Manteghi and Rachel Summers (Manuel Harlan)
Dom Hodson, Serena Manteghi and Rachel Summers (Manuel Harlan)

First a disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of Charles Dickens. Great Expectations is the only novel of his I’ve read, and countless stage and screen adaptations of his greatest hits have left me with limited tolerance for his earnestly striving young men, pert heroines, etiolated Pecksniffs and apple-cheeked Fezziwigs.

Dickens spoofs leave me even colder because they are just too easy. His authorial voice is so distinct, his characters so close to caricature, the plots so familiar. All any would-be pasticheur has to do is make up some silly names, assemble a cut-and-past-plot and insert some jokes about poverty and Victorian prudery. Bish bosh, job done.

This latest attempt, by TV and radio writer Mark Evans, is a particularly undemanding example of the overworked genre. It sees young Pip Bin sent to cruel boarding school St Bastard’s after his father is eaten by penguins, and escaping to save his sisters from penury and the dastardly attentions of a villain called Gently Benevolent (the nominative determinism of Dickens is often reversed here, though not in the case of headmaster Wackwell Hardthrasher or Pip’s love interests, Ripely Fecund and Flora Dies-Early).

The show is narrated by an adult Sir Philip Bin, played by a different guest star in a moustache each week of the four-month run, and aided by a disembodied hand that passes props onto the collapsing library set. This week’s host is Sally Phillips (to May 21), who brings fine ironic timing to the lamest of lines, and gamely weathers the meta “hang on, aren’t you Sally Phillips?” gags.

The rest of the cast have two modes of expression: a wide-eyed, school-play parody of earnestness or fizzing hysteria. Dom Hodson recalls a young Robert Bathurst in his good-chap bafflement as Pip, while John Hopkins’s Gently Benevolent is a cackling panto villain.

Evans has written five series of Bleak Expectations for Radio 4 as well as The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff for BBC2, so the comedy here is familiar, thin stuff, both exhausted and exhausting. Evans and director Caroline Leslie chuck everything into the mix: slapstick, puns, wordplay, ironic juxtapositions between 19th and 21st century mores, and outright daftness.

Dom Hodson, Rachel Summers, J.J. Henry and Serena Manteghi (Manuel Harlan)
Dom Hodson, Rachel Summers, J.J. Henry and Serena Manteghi (Manuel Harlan)

Pip’s schoolmate Harry Biscuit is obsessed with training swans to do unlikely tasks and getting the celebratory word “Harrumble!” into common parlance, for instance. Very occasionally a joke lands well: I liked the idea of Pip’s sister Pippa, given an anvil by their late father, reduced by poverty to blacksmithery on street corners. But mostly it chunters on at a level of profound mediocrity.

This show is clearly designed to emulate the long-running success of previous knockabout comedies at this theatre, such as The 39 Steps or the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works. It’s too lazy and tired to achieve that, though the audience at the midweek matinee I attended gave it a resounding “hurrah, huzzah and harrumble” at the end. My reaction was more “Bah, harrumbug”. Or, to borrow one of Evans’s parodic lines: “Please sir, can I have some less?”

Criterion Theatre, to 3 Sept; buy tickets here