Review - Bleak Expectations - Criterion Theatre, London

Bleak Expectations - Criterion Theatre, London

In 2015, Clive Greenaway from Dorset broke the Guinness World Record for telling 26 jokes in a minute. Sadly, the gala performance of Bleak Expectations on Thursday evening struggled to deliver 26 jokes across 2 hours.

Based on the BBC radio series of the same name that ran for 5 seasons from 2007 and the 2011/12 BBC adaptation ‘The Bleak Old Shop Of Stuff’, as the name suggests, Bleak Expectations bills itself as a Dickens parody, picking fun at the tropes, chiches and social norms associated with the Victorian era.

The play tells the story of fictionalised ‘industrialist and philanthropist’ Sir Philip ‘Pip’ Bin and it narrated by Pip’s older self with the role of the narrator changing to a different guest star each week. Sally Phillips has followed in the footsteps of Nina Wadia and Dermot O’Leary in the production and she certainly seemed to relish the role (although quite why the ‘older’ Pip had a heavy middle-European accent whilst his younger self (Dom Hodson) spoke in a formal English accent was never made clear). The story of Pip’s early life is punctuated with love, love lost, dastardly villains,  Victorian boarding schools, murder, cannibalism and more besides.  The pace is snappy at times but sometimes just doesn’t seem to quite keep up the momentum and feels more like a pantomime but without the dame of family appeal.

Ultimately, for me it was the script that let the show down, whilst not familiar with the radio or TV series on which the show is based, it certainly felt like a 30 minute show had been stretched to fill 2 hours. Despite being billed as a comedy, the jokes often fell flat and even those that raised a smile were often repeated to the extent they were drained of their comedy value – for example a reference to a woman not being able to run a business ‘because we’re in Victorian times’ could have been a cutting critique of the era or a reference to modern progress, instead it was repeated so often it felt like the writer (Mark Evans) had run out of ideas.

To give credit where it’s due, the cast made the very best of a weak script – Mark Pickering (playing multiple members of the Hardthrasher family) delivered a masterclass as a comedy villain – his timing, presence and occasional add-libs were a definite highlight.

I really wanted to enjoy the show but feel the script needs work to sustain the pace and add more humour.  There was a great opportunity to satirise the Victorian era or to highlight the progressive views of Dickens or indeed, to draw parallels to modern society, but ultimately some strong performances were undermined by the writing which, no number of big name guest narrators will be able to salvage.

This show was reviewed on the 18th May 2023.  Bleak Expectations runs at the Criterion Theatre until the 3rd September 2023.  Tickets available here: 

** stars

Mike Stocks

Catch Mike every Monday at 9am for 'The Best of Stage and Screen' here at Box Office Radio


Photo credit: Manuel Harlan