Watermill Theatre - Bleak Expectations
27th May to 2nd July 2022
Review from The Times.
Dickens with a dash of Monty Python
Summer hasn’t even arrived yet, so it’s a tad early to be thinking of Yuletide shows. Nonetheless, I can’t help thinking that, come winter, Mark Evans’s mischievous Dickensian pastiche, a fevered mash-up of Victorian melodrama, would make a welcome change from another cycle of A Christmas Carol revivals.
If you ever heard Evans’s long-running Radio 4 series, which first went on air in 2007, you’ll know how nimbly he combines period detail with a sense of the absurd. The ghosts of the Goons and Monty Python jangle their chains in the background as a cast of heroes, heroines, scheming villains and swooning damsels exchange immaculately polished puns and in-jokes.
Evans’s comic imagination is so wildly over-the-top that it might seem counterproductive to try to repackage it for the stage. But if his adaptation sometimes seems cluttered in the Watermill’s tiny auditorium, the torrent of jokes proves pretty much irresistible. On the radio, a young Tom Allen took the role of the ingenuous Pip Bin, the young gentleman in the making who stumbles from one unlikely adventure to another. At the Watermill, Dom Hodson slips easily into the role, with Simon Kane, as the dastardly and wonderfully named Gently Benevolent, doing his best to thwart his progress.
There was a moment in the first half when I wondered if Evans hadn’t tried to cram in too many improbable plot twists. The pace is relentless. Perhaps it would be worth copying the example of that other recent literary spoof, Isobel McArthur’s Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of ), and inserting a song or two to give the audience a chance to catch its breath.
Still, Caroline Leslie’s production gallops towards a satisfyingly batty conclusion as Pip (who makes his fortune as the inventor of a rubbish basket) finds himself locked in a courtroom battle with a crusty American plaintiff (also played by Kane). Caitlin Scott doubles as Pip’s sister, Poppy, and the love of his life, Ripely Fecund, who is, at first, concealed beneath an Elephant Man-style sack. Rose Basista sparkles as Pip’s other sister, Pippa. As the older, grander version of our hero, Nicholas Murchie narrates his life story with just the right touch of grand old man pomposity.
Dan Tetsell, JJ Henry, Alicia McKenzie and Colm Gleeson complete an effervescent, multitasking cast. Katie Lias’s cosy set overflows with Victoriana, including a collection of silhouettes that occasionally join in the chatter. Tom Pigott-Smith’s incidental music adds parlour room charm as well. What larks, eh, Pip?
Review from Newbury Theatre.
There were 30 Episodes of Bleak Expectations on Radio 4 between 2007 and 2012. Mark Evans, the author, has now turned it into a stage play which is being given its world premiere at the Watermill.
If you liked the radio series, you’ll love this. If you didn’t like it, this play’s peculiar brand of humour may not be for you. But if you didn’t hear it on the radio come and see it. It’s a long time since I laughed so much at a play.
How to describe it? It’s a spoof of assorted Dickens novels, taking a tilt at the stiff upper lip repressions of Victorian England. It’s also a cornucopia of visual and verbal gags, often with a twist you weren’t expecting. There are hints of the Goons and Monty Python in the style of humour.
It charts the life and loves of Pip (Philip) Bin, eldest son of Thomas and Agnes Bin, narrated by Sir Philip, as he became in his later years. We see Pip’s conception and birth, closely followed by the birth of his two sisters – a surprisingly straightforward set of events. After his schooldays and various ups and downs we are led to a happy ending.
The cast were magnificent, enjoying the over-the-top melodrama. Nicholas Murchie as Sir Philip guided us through the proceedings with Dom Hodson as his repressed younger self. J.J. Henry was outstanding as the over-generous Mr Parsimonious giving presents of a pipe to Pip and a puppy and an anvil to his sisters Poppy and Pippa. He also played Pip’s needy best friend Harry Biscuit with a great range of facial expressions.
Simon Kane as Gently Benevolent made a splendid villain, and Dan Tetsell got a lot of laughs as the Hardthrashers. Caitlin Scott played Poppy Bin and was perfect as the lovelorn Ripely Fecund.
All the cast deserve a mention but I’m running out of superlatives. Rose Basista as Pippa Bin had an eventful if surreal life; even more surreal was Alicia McKenzie as Pip’s mum who imagined she was a piece of linen, not forgetting Colm Gleeson who, among other characters, played the vendor of French baked goods.
Director Caroline Leslie got the best from her talented team in a fast-paced production that only flagged a little in the second half.
Better than the radio series? I thought so, because the excellent visual humour added an extra dimension to it. A very enjoyable production.
Review from the Guardian.
Dickens parody bursts on to the stage
Some may already know this ticklish literary comedy from the BBC Radio 4 series that premiered in 2007. Now it bursts into life as an adrenalised stage adaptation filled with fast-paced physical comedy, joshing satire and oodles of silliness.
Written by Mark Evans and vigorously directed by Caroline Leslie, it is ostensibly a parody of Dickens, as the spliced Bleak House/Great Expectations title suggests, but sends up a certain kind of Britishness and privilege along the way, from empire to the scourge of boarding schools and 19th century social mores.
“It was the best of times, it was the best of times,” begins the narrator, Sir Philip Bin (Nicholas Murchie, a mischievous David Niven type), who takes us back to misadventures in his early life. He is Pip (Dom Hodson) in his younger incarnation who, like his Dickensian namesake, experiences family tragedy and financial struggle as a boy. He also meets a Magwitch-like convict-cum-benefactor and comic versions of Miss Havisham and Estella (the latter, played by Alicia McKenzie, amusingly does little but giggle).
His life story has plenty of wacky turns: his father is killed by monkeys in a trip to the colonies, after which he is sent off to the boarding school, St Bastard’s, which is designed to kill him off before he can claim his inheritance. The school scenes bring pointed humour around repressed masculinity and the brutal educational system that shapes it. It is all rather familiar but still entertaining, with abounding puns in its references to other schools that nurture toxic masculinity such as “Thugby” and “Beaton College”.
Katie Lias’s set design is original and all nine actors give deft and energetic performances, with linguistic gymnastics including tongue twisters and lines delivered at speed. There are especially strong performances from Hodson as Pip – hapless, good-natured, charming – and his sisters Pippa and Poppy, played by Rose Basista and Caitlin Scott. The latter doubles up, fabulously, as Ripely Fecund, a 28-year-old unmarried “old maid” who gives this story its romantic heart.
Sometimes, it all feels a little too Radio 4. Some jokes are
predictable or blunt-edged, especially around retrograde Englishness and
privilege. It becomes relentless in its outrageous plot developments,
too, but we can’t begrudge the show its weaker moments because of its
overriding sense of twinkly-eyed fun. It feels like an effective
antidote to pandemic darkness and there are some lovely detailed
touches, including the spoof adverts in the programme. If it is comfort
theatre, it also zings with intelligence, imagination and comic anarchy.
Review from the Newbury Weekly News.
The Dickens of disorder
Watermill's hilarious mash-up based on 'the gloriously daft' BBC Radio 4 series
Welcome to the world of Dickens, but not as you might know it, since Mark Evans’ witty, hilarious parody of such works as Great Expectations, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities is filled with so much fun and comic cleverness with tongue-in-cheek humour and many in-jokes.
Nicholas Murchie, as the older Sir Pip Bin, authoritatively narrates his family’s rags-to-riches story.
His younger self is played by Dom Hodson who gives a delightful performance as the innocent Pip who together with his two sisters go on a treacherous journey as they navigate their eventual fate.
Caitlin Scott, making her professional debut, is engaging as Poppy Bin as well as playing the whimsical Ripely Fecund. Rose Basista is her naive sister Pippa Bin, steadfastly carrying her anvil wherever she goes.
JJ Henry is splendid as the lonely schoolboy who befriends Pip at St Bastard’s School and switches with ease to Mr Parsimonious. Simon Kane plays Gently Benevolent who certainly isn’t benevolent.
Pip had a horrid time at school. Dan Tetsell is outstanding as his sadistic headmaster, who enjoys thrashing the boys. He also gives a stellar performance as a fearful governess, a truly depraved vicar and a corrupt judge. All a joy to watch, but also to dislike them.
As Pip’s mother, Alicia McKenzie brings a sense of frenzy to the role and by contrast plays the charming Flora Dies-Early.
Colm Gleeson multi-roles from Thomas Bin to Bakewell Havertwitch and Broadley Fecund.
Katie Lias’s impressive set has a tower of books that dominates stage right and is precariously used as a climbing frame to reach the upper levels. There are cameo pictures that come to life and a magical changing of locations.
Andrew Exeter’s lighting design even had flickering light in the auditorium evoking gaslight and Tom Piggott-Smith’s emotive soundtrack adds to the mood with sound designed by Andrew Exeter.
Slickly directed by Caroline Lesley, this is a wonderful ensemble production that sparkles with inventiveness and is performed by a richly talented cast, who were enjoying it as much as the audience.
Don’t miss it!