Photo: Manuel Harlan

For those unfamiliar with the premise, Bleak Expectations is a BBC Radio 4 comedy series, written by Mark Evans, which is a spoof the works of Charles Dickens. A stage adaptation premiered at the Watermill Theatre last year and it has now opened on London’s West End at the Criterion Theatre, under the direction of Caroline Leslie. A number of guest stars are set to play the role of the narrator during the run – on press night we had Sally Phillips, with the role variously being filled by the likes of Sue Perkins, Stephen Fry and Jo Brand over the summer.

Bleak Expectations provides a cosy evening of easy, lighthearted entertainment – it plays on incredibly well-known material to provide some amusing silliness. In a nutshell, we are introduced to our protagonist Pip, who is set to inherit a fortune from his late father, but not if his guardian – the cruel Gently Benevolent (not a case of nominative determinism) – has anything to do with it. Pip is packed off to St Bastards boarding school while his guardian devises a cunning plan to swipe the inheritance for himself.

However, we did think that it was all incredibly safe – the whole evening comprised gently poking fun at the source material, a smattering of silly puns and a dash of slapstick comedy for good measure. It’s all perfectly enjoyable, but it’s a show that’s light on big laughs. Most of our favourite moments revolved around guest star Sally Phillips breaking the fourth wall; whether enduring another meta “aren’t you Sally Phillips?” quip or making light of the drinks selection at the Criterion, we found these jokes much funnier than the rather tame script. Given the narrator is a fairly substantial part it will be interesting to see how others play the role.

None of this is to say that Bleak Expectations isn’t enjoyable – it absolutely is – but we were just hoping that it would be a bit funnier. There is some amusing wordplay here, and a bit of gentle fun being poked at the well-worn source material there, but everything just feels a bit too safe and predictable to really make it essential viewing.

GAY TIMES gives Bleak Expectations – 3/5

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