Bleak Expectations at Criterion Theatre
Farcical theatre is a surprisingly delicate art form. If the gag rate is ten plus per minute, it’s tricky to maintain their quality and variation so as not to end up with an unfortunate string of unlanded punchlines. Now, one thing needs to be clear from the outset: Bleak Expectations, Mark Evans’s new West End production, lifted from his longstanding radio show of the same title, is hilarious. There are just one or two gaping holes where uproarious laughter never arises and a handful of the jests stray into the realm of juvenile.
Nevertheless, the performances are absolutely and invariably splendid, with the casting uniting the cream of the crop of hammed-up comic acting. Moments of improvisation – or perhaps more likely quasi-improvisation – are incorporated and carried off with ease, and to side-splitting effect. Worth noting are the revolving big-name guest narrators, each of whom takes on the role for a week before being replaced, presumably lending a re-watchability to proceedings, as well as the draw of an out-and-out celebrity. On this occasion, Sally Phillips dons the moustache of the protagonist’s future self (other names to come include Stephen Fry, Jo Brand and Sue Perkins). There is little doubt that Phillips is a high-grade comic performer, but it is slightly uncomfortable watching a significant character operating upon evidently less preparation than her colleagues.
The writing is in many ways ingenious. Dickensian tropes along with sly and not so sly references to his tales are rife, and just about every period-piece character cliché that ever was is pounced upon with delicious ridicule. Even if the hit to miss ratio is a little wonky, there is a delightful abandon to the storming pace of banter, relentless and absorbing. Of course it never cast itself as a serious piece, but perhaps Bleak Expectations is just a touch too silly for its own good.
Bleak Expectations is at Criterion Theatre from 3rd May until 3rd September 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.