One of those shows with an acquired sense of humour, Bleak Expectations likes to make itself relevant by inserting topical references. By doing so, it delights in rankling purists, and in turn, gives most of the rest of us punchlines to enjoy: Sir Philip Bin (Sue Perkins at the performance I attended, the celebrity narrator role being shared during this Criterion Theatre run by various people, including Robert Lindsay, Julian Clary, Jo Brand, Jack Dee, Alexander Armstrong and Stephen Fry) looks back on ‘his’ (inverted commas mine) younger years. Set in the nineteenth century, a train journey to London was described as punctual and affordable, “something, I’m quite sure, is still the case to this day”, our narrator quips. Enough laughter erupted from us locals for the tourists to get the general gist of what it’s like to travel on Avanti West Coast, or South Western Railway, in 2023.
Pip Bin (Conor Dumbrell, understudying for Dom Hodson at the performance I attended, though I wouldn’t have known any better had it not been for a sign in the bar when I queued up for drinks at the interval) has a life story that draws on various Charles Dickens stories. Perkins went off-script at one point to break character, heralding Dumbrell’s performance, with the additional quip that he should pay no heed to whatever is being said backstage: he’s doing great. I’ve no idea whether the cast is living out Noises Off for real, but either way it’s indicative of the challenge the cast faces during this run, as each guest narrator will have their own ad libs. Perkins also dealt very deftly with a heckler in the first half, and being a comedian in any event, it was palpably water off a duck’s back.
The production overall takes much pleasure in Victorian-style exaggeration of expressions and delivery, which might be a tad too shouty for some, but there’s ultimately nothing wrong in being able to hear ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING VERY, VERY CLEARLY. Gently Benevolent (John Hopkins) is rather the opposite of what his name suggests, in the way in which millennials say ‘literally’ when they (literally) mean ‘figuratively’. It’s easy to see from a mile away, let alone my vantage point in the dress circle, that the protagonist Bin was going to triumph over the antagonist Benevolent one way or another, and so (spoiler alert, not that you need it) it proves to be.
This show is not, it’s worth pointing out, unceasing and effusive praise for Charles Dickens, though the script suggests Dickens’ writing was of its time rather than being deliberately obtuse towards women. Still, there’s a reason why there’s a character called Flora Dies-Early (Ashh Blackwood), just as there is for Bin’s sister Pippa (Serena Manteghi) championing the cause of women’s rights, complete with a rallying cry towards a future when women can vote in General Elections and be employed in whatever profession they choose. The Hardthrasher brothers are all played by Marc Pickering: the one that is a judge claims he can neither see nor hear Pippa, an intriguing misogynistic take played for laughs, which the audience duly supply. That he plays an entire jury all by himself, doffing different hats both physically and metaphorically, says something about criminal (in)justice, both then and now. The Hardthrasher that is a school headmaster is equally true to real life, asking the pupil Bin a question, demanding an immediate answer, and then scolding him for answering back.
“Please sir, can I have some less?” Bin the younger pipes up, because the food on offer at St Bastard’s School (yep, that’s what it’s called) is so terrible he would rather not lick his plate clean. In adulthood, he calls in at “number thirteen, Total Tosspot Street”. Benevolent, meanwhile, writes a tersely worded letter to Bin, in red ink because he’s using a kitten as an inkwell, something which drew far more laughs than I would have expected in a nation full of animal lovers. (Before the production gets reported to Cats Protection, drawing ‘blood’ from a kitten is done using sound effects and a stuffed toy.)
As light entertainment goes, I wasn’t exactly laughing heartily from beginning to end. I suppose if you find Monty Python funny, you’ll like this too.