“It’s essentially a surreal show set in a mad Victorian world inspired by Dickens”: Mark Evans on Bleak Expectations
Bleak Expectations is a BBC Radio 4 show written by Mark Evans, initially inspired by Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations – hence the title. It follows the adventures of siblings Pip, Poppy and Pippa, alongside Harry Biscuit. The story first came to the stage last year at the Watermill Theatre, adapting the first radio show, albeit with a few changes to fit the medium of theatre. This year, Bleak Expectations comes to the West End at the Criterion Theatre, with some very special guests. The character of Sir Phillip Bin will be played by different actors throughout the current run of the play, with names including Nina Wadia, Dermot O’Leary, Adjoa Andoh, Stephen Mangan, Stephen Fry, Ben Miller and many, many more.
Evans’s creation has not only spawned this stage adaptation but also a novelisation. His other works include writing for That Mitchell and Webb Look and Sorry, I’ve Got No Head. He has also written some jokes for the Rowan Atkinson film, Johnny English Strikes Again. The Upcoming caught up with Evans in lieu of the grand opening on 3rd May to talk about the process of translating a radio show for the stage, all his Charles Dickens knowledge, and continuity within the Bleak Expectations multiverse.
How would you describe Bleak Expectations to those who haven’t heard of it before? How friendly is this stage play to those unfamiliar with the lore?
First of all, if you’ve never even heard of the radio show, that doesn’t matter one bit! The play can be enjoyed completely as itself. It’s essentially a slightly surreal show set in a mad Victorian world loosely inspired by Charles Dickens – although, again, you really don’t need to know anything about him to enjoy it. Beyond having seen A Muppet Christmas Carol and read Great Expectations, I certainly didn’t know much about him when I wrote it. It’s basically a big, silly, joke-filled show with some surprisingly emotional bits – fun for all the family!
How did the stage play come about? Who gave you the initial idea to adapt it for the theatre, and what was the process of getting it approved and performed like?
I always wanted to adapt it for the stage because I love putting words and stories in front of people to make them laugh and have fun. The live audiences at the radio recordings showed that people enjoyed the kind of thing I was doing. Oddly, one of my oldest friends, David Wolstencroft – the man who created Spooks – also came up with the idea of doing that, so we teamed up. Neither of us being theatre people, we found Anthology, the company who helped take the show to the Watermill Theatre last year. Then other producers joined in to get us into the West End. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t, and lots of great people have worked very hard to get us here.
What was it like trying to translate a radio show for the stage? How creative did you have to be to make certain things work?
Initially, I thought it would be quite easy but, roughly 873 drafts of the script later, I’ve changed my mind about that. (It was actually slightly fewer!) It’s essentially an adaptation of the first radio series, but that’s three hours of material, so making that fit into under two hours was tricky – plus, lots of radio stuff won’t work on the stage, for example, turning a large tuna into a rudimentary sailing vessel was never going to happen! There was lots of thought, rewriting and reshaping to get it on-stage, both story-wise and practically.
Often, when things are adapted to a different medium, a different writer comes in and creates a new version of the old script. Were you open to having someone else try and write this beloved story for you?
Short answer: no. Longer, answer: no, no, no. Politer answer: Bleak Expectations is extremely precious to me – he said, Gollum-like! I’m quite protective of it. Plus, I’m not sure any other writer could quite get into and inhabit its world as I do. There’s also the fact that I still really enjoy writing it!
What was it like collaborating with director Caroline Leslie? Did she have any new ideas or input that you wanted to incorporate?
Caroline’s brilliant at bringing my sometimes rather dense words to life, adding energy and creativity to the script at every turn. She’s also been very good at making the story more genuine and emotional, whereas my tendency is more, “Never mind people’s feelings, let’s do another joke.” That input was invaluable. Honestly, she’s done a cracking job and is great to work with as well.
Sir Philip Bin will be played by many different actors and individuals throughout this stage play’s run. What does each of the performers for the part have to offer that adds more to the character?
I think it’s a really fun idea to rotate in guest stars for the role of Sir Philip, who’s narrating the story of his early life. We’ve managed to get such a good range of great people to do it, each of whom will have their own special joy and magic. It’s going to be really interesting seeing how the character, as written on the page, will change with the different ways people do it. I can’t wait to see each and every one of them!
In regards to continuity, how closely tied is the stage play to the radio show and the novel? Is it within the same universe and just in a different medium, or have you made changes to it that make this essentially a different story from the two versions that came before it?
Good question! While it is the same story as the radio and novel versions, it’s also not – if that makes any sense? A lot of the same events happen, but often to different characters and in slightly different ways. But that’s all to serve the story on-stage and make it as fun and narratively compulsive as possible. Maybe it’s as if there’s a Bleak Expectations multiverse where slightly different versions of the same story happen – but on a cheaper budget than the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s multiverse. Just to reassure people: after the radio, book and stage versions, I promise I’ll stop there! There won’t be a Bleak Expectations: The Opera, or Ballet Expectations. Although maybe I could get working on a massive Bayeux-style tapestry of it, and a film version would be awesome too! Oh no! Looks like I’m not stopping like I said I would!
You’ve said before that Great Expectations was one of the catalysts for the show. Looking back now and seeing how far this franchise has come, would you say Bleak Expectations has finally evolved from its Dickensian origins?
Well, the radio show certainly departed from Dickens-ness after the first series. It had Martian invasions, a zombie apocalypse, people’s brains being transplanted into dinosaurs, giant tsunamis of molten brie, possessed pigeons, and many, many other things that I’m pretty sure Dickens never wrote about! But he was only ever the starting point for conjuring up the 19th century milieu the show inhabits. Somehow, most people know a bit of Dickens, either from TV costume dramas or the musical Oliver, or just from a weird, general Britishness. That makes it a recognisable world for an audience, thus making it easier to send up lots of jokes and ridiculousness – though, incidentally, Dickens himself was a very funny writer. Even his serious stuff is shot through with wit, and I sometimes think the slightly serious TV adaptations don’t have enough of that lightness of touch about them.
Bleak Expectations is on at the Criterion Theatre from 3rd May until 3rd September 2023.
Watch the trailer for Bleak Expectations here: