Bleak Expectations is a new play based on the BBC Radio 4 series by Mark Evans. The play premiered at the Watermill Theatre last year and has now made its way over to the Criterion Theatre in the West End.

Credit: Manuel Harlan

Set in Dickensian London, the show follows Pip Bin on a madcap adventure, in which he invents the bin – the plot is rather thin on the ground, but you get the gist – there’s an evil headmaster, ironically named characters, and a lot of puns.

The show has a Narrator, Sir Philip Bin, who is played by a different celebrity each week. The narrator this week is Sally Phillips, whose deadpan expressions and serious tone within her delivery heightens the comedic effects of the script. There is a slight disconnect as her accent completely differs from the younger version of herself, Pip Bin onstage which seems unnecessary. Phillips slides on and off stage, sitting on an armchair, she aids the pacing of the show well, but having a different actor to perform each week, therefore, they read from the script, which means the natural comedic flair, the performer possesses, is somewhat diluted.

Katie Lias’ set design emulates the Victorian period well, with hues of brown and blue throughout and ornate furniture. A pile of multi-coloured books is placed on stage, used often as a staircase by the characters. There are limited staging changes, when the Pip Bin goes to boarding school, a sign simply appears, and when they travel to London, the pile of books is replaced with rubbish; this lack of set changes means the show at times feels like one lengthy scene, which impacts the pace.

Whilst Evans’ script is filled with jokes, these all feel quite safe and predictable, the show gets off to a good start but by Act Two the puns and one-liners begin to feel repetitive, and throughout the show the jokes land unevenly. With a 2-hour 20-minute run time, Caroline Leslie’s production could do with some condensing, although having the Narrator aids the pacing overall, towards the end there are multiple moments when it feels as though the show could come to an end, yet it persists.

Dom Hodson excels in the role of Pip Bin, bringing an energy to the role which never dissipates despite barely leaving the stage. His comedic timing is brilliant, and his facial expressions are hysterical. Marc Pickering plays The Hardthrasers, multiple related and horrible characters, who pop up repeatedly, weaving physical comedy into his portrayal of these characters, he is a delight to watch. Other performances were less successful, with some feeling rather one-note; some actors play multiple characters, yet they are indistinctive. A special shout out to Emily Waters who is wonderful as the arm – you never know when she’ll appear.

Whilst the concept is great, the show is more amusing than riotously funny, and the absence of great comedy means the lack of plot is only highlighted. The script could be made much more complex and wittier, but in its current form, it induces giggles rather than hysterics. Bleak Expectations is not the best of times or the worst of times – it is simply an okay time.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Bleak Expectations is on at Criterion Theatre until the 3rd of September – find out more here!

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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