Bleak Expectations


Restaging something that has been much beloved in another format can be a double-edged sword. How do you maintain the sense of the original while giving the audience something new and fresh? This can be made even more complex when transferring from radio to stage. So much of what we ‘see’ in the radio drama exists only through the collusion of our minds and the BBC Sound Effects department. How to depict on stage the often soaring ambitious soundscapes that made up the original Bleak Expectations?

While nothing will ever live up to my imagination, this stage show gives it a bloody good go. Designer Kate Elias and Director Caroline Leslie create a world of heightened Victorianism that breezes along – sometimes anachronistically, but never uncomfortably.

Comfortable is a good word for Bleak Expectations. It is an unashamedly cosy comedy. While, of course as a Dickens parody, there is tragedy, poverty and evil doing, this is not a social commentary. It’s a comedy. Happily, cosily so. And it’s a very funny one.

The show has a different guest narrator each week playing the older Sir Philip Bin, telling the story of his younger self from his happy and then tragic childhood and how he made and lost his fortune. On this occasion, it was Sally Phillips clearly having a great time (if not always a fully rehearsed one). These interjections are a fun addition, but the show is largely carried by the continuous cast who all also seem to be having the time of their lives.

Dom Hodson sparkles as the young Pip giving the story a lightness and joy that brings his character to life even as it never strays far beyond the caricature of the parody. He is ably supported by a cast that covers a variety of different roles, including the divinely camp Marc Pickering as the whole cruel Hardthrasher family.

Special mention must go here to John Hopkins turn as the evil Gently Benevolent. For those of us who love a sexy bastard, this performance – in particular his deliciously evil laugh – was one I was particularly engaged by. The Bin women too should not be forgotten – in particular Serena Manteghi as Pippa – the anvil-loving feminist sister.

I have been a fan of Bleak Expectations since it appeared on Radio 4 in 2007. For me, this show recalled a much-beloved old friend and breathed new life into it in this format. But my companion had no experience of the show and she too enjoyed this enormously. So this production clearly can bring this delight to a new audience. But don’t worry fans of the original looking for a reminder of what you once loved. Not only are all the elements that made the original so much fun there, the production is fully aware of the love of the audience and the debt this show owes that love in making this a viable production to stage.

The original radio programmes were less than half an hour long, and I did wonder how this would sustain over a two-hour West End show. In the end, the answer was ‘remarkably well’. The energy never dipped, but nor did it grate.

Bleak Expectations is not the show to see if you want Dickens-level social commentary. But it absolutely does provide a good night out. I came out of the theatre feeling refreshed, joyous and far from bleak.