Dire Expectations at the Criterion Theater Review: Mediocre Dickens parody chases along
First a disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of Charles Dickens. Great Expectations is the only novel of his that I have read, and countless stage and screen adaptations of his greatest hits have left me with a limited tolerance for his earnestly aspiring young men, pert heroines, toned-down Pecksniffs and apple-cheeked Fezziwigs.
The Dickens parodies make me even angrier because they’re just too easy. His authorial voice is so distinct, his characters so close to the caricature, the plot so familiar. Any wannabe pastiche maker just has to come up with a few silly names, put together a short plot, and throw in a few jokes about poverty and Victorian prudery. Heck, the job is done.
This latest effort from TV and radio writer Mark Evans is a particularly low-key example of the revised genre. It follows young Pip Bin being sent to the cruel boarding school St. Bastard’s after his father is eaten by penguins and flees to save his sisters from the misery and underhanded attentions of a villain named Gently Benevolent ( however, Dickens’ nominative determinism is often reversed here). not in the case of Headmaster Wackwell Hardthrasher or Pip’s love interests Ripely Fecund and Flora Dies-Early).
The show is narrated by an adult Sir Philip Bin, played by a different mustachioed guest star each week during its four-month run, and assisted by a disembodied hand reaching props onto the collapsing library set. This week’s host is Sally Phillips (through May 21), who brings subtle tongue-in-cheek timing to the lamest lines and bravely weathers the “wait a minute, aren’t you Sally Phillips?” meta. jokes
The rest of the cast expresses themselves in two ways: a wide-eyed school theater parody of seriousness, or flare-up hysteria. Dom Hodson recalls young Robert Bathurst in his good-natured confusion as Pip, while John Hopkins’ Gently Benevolent portrays a cackling panto villain.
Evans has written five series of ‘Bleak Expectations’ for Radio 4 as well as ‘The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff’ for BBC2, so the comedy here is familiar thin stuff, both drained and draining. Evans and director Caroline Leslie bring everything with them: slapstick, puns, puns, ironic juxtapositions between 19th and 20th centuriesth and 21St manners of the century and utter stupidity.
Pip’s schoolmate Harry Biscuit is obsessed with teaching swans unlikely tasks and getting the celebratory word “Harrumble!” for doing so. into common usage, for example. Every now and then a joke goes down well: I liked the idea of Pip’s sister Pippa being gifted an anvil by her late father and being forced by poverty to the forge on street corners. But mostly the chatter continues on a level of deep mediocrity.
This show is clearly designed to emulate the longstanding success of previous stunning comedies at this theater such as The 39 Steps or The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works. It’s too lazy and too tired to accomplish that, although the audience at the weekday matinee I attended let out a loud “hooray, huzzah, and din” at the end. My reaction was more like “Pah, nonsense”. Or to borrow one of Evans’ parodic lines: “Please sir, can I have a little less?”
Criterion Theatre, through September 3; buy tickets Here
https://www.standard.co.uk/culture/theatre/bleak-expectations-criterion-theatre-review-charles-dickens-parody-b1082090.html Dire Expectations at the Criterion Theater Review: Mediocre Dickens parody chases along