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Bleak Expectations at the Watermill Theatre – review

Comedic Dickens mash-up triumphantly makes the transition from radio to stage

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The company of Bleak Expectations
© Pamela Raith

What the Dickens! To composer Tom Piggot-Smith's portentous opening notes, this parodic homage to all things Dickensian begins with its evocative score, as the lights go up to reveal Katie Lias' inspired Victoriana. Lias is a real Watermill stalwart, who seems to effortlessly make the most of its intimate space. And so we find ourselves drawn into her ornate 19th-century interior, all plush dark rich reds and greens, subtly lit by Andrew Exeter. The eye is drawn to a giant higgledy-piggledy pile of books providing a precarious 'ladder' to an upper level, which serves to provide a feeling of spaciousness (and to reference a programme note in which writer Mark Evans shares that a pile of books he read as a teenager one summer holiday was a foot taller than he was!). The walls are decorated by portrait heads in silhouette, arranged to give the feeling of depth of a corridor (they provide a brilliantly clever surprise later which I won't spoil).

The master of the house and our interlocutor and guide is Nicholas Murchie's gentlemanly Sir Philip Bin, who is ready to share the eventful and shocking story of his life – a gloriously comic mash-up of Great Expectations and Bleak House (as the title suggests), sauced with dashes of Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities and more.

And so we meet Sir Philip's younger self, delightful Dom Hodson's ridiculously sympathetic Pip Bin, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed whatever life throws at him, and his equally susceptible sisters Pippa and Poppy, played with a winning knowing naivety and plenty of girlish spirit, by Rose Basista and Caitlin Scott.

Mum Agnes and Dad Thomas (Alicia Mackenzie and Colm Gleeson, both having and providing fun) are at first present and correct, until Mum decides enough is enough of her wifely duties in the bedroom once she's produced her progeny. Dad promptly becomes an absent father, making his fortune exploiting the ‘North Indies', until he meets his fate, succumbing to assault by marauding monkeys – or as our alliterative author headlines it – ‘starving simians' feeding frenzy' …

At first, the Bin brood enjoy the generosity of Mr Parsimonious (wonderfully expansive J J Henry), who is actually the opposite of nominative determinative as he showers gifts on the siblings (including a puppy for Poppy – and unaccountably but usefully, an anvil for Pippa).

But inevitably Pip soon meets the first of his tormentors as he and his sisters fall under the thumb of their ruthless guardian (again oppositely rather than appositely-named) Gently Benevolent, played to the hilt by Simon Kane, who is determined to dispose of Thomas Bin's son and heir before he can reach his 18th birthday – and equally set on marrying (very) young Pippa, so that he can inherit instead.

Pip is of course despatched to boarding school – and St Bastard's School for Unfortunate Boys more than lives up to its name – with serial thrashings the order of the day from headmaster Wackwell Hardthrasher (Dan Tetsell scarily excellent in the first of a succession of ‘Hardthrasher' roles), that actually almost go beyond the comedic, so surreally realistic do they seem.

That Pip makes good his escape from the dastardly Gently Benevolent and meets and helps an escaped convict to shed his shackles, with the aid of a hammer and his sister's anvil, should signal the reincorporation of this encounter at the story's climax to those who know the plot of Great Expectations.

We follow the adventures and misadventures of the young Bin siblings, gasping and laughing by turns as Pip encounters the love interest provided by the likes of Flora Dies-Early (Alicia Mackenzie having fun living up, so to speak, to Flora's surname); and then, at last, the love of his life, the wonderfully monikered Ripely Fecund, just one of the apparently dozens of progeny of Mr Broadly Fecund (Colm Gleeson in another Dad guise), played with exquisite comedic sensibility as the swooning but feisty maiden, by Caitlin Scott.

Pip is sort of aided and abetted along the way by his bestie and would-be partner in brainwaves, the ever-hopeful but always inept Harry Biscuit (JJ Henry excelling again). I'll say no more now – except to share my delight and approval of the way Pip makes his fortune by living up to his surname and inventing the rubbish bin to solve the problem of the litter-strewn slums of London town (as a regular litter picker I had no idea of the debt I owe to young Pip!).

The whole is expertly directed by Caroline Leslie, another Watermill returnee (who previously helmed Trial by Laughter and The Wipers Times). So hurrah, huzzah and harrumble! Roars of delighted laughter from an audience of all ages, including plenty of young people at the matinee I attended, attest to the huge success of this adventurous visualisation of writer Mark Evans' long-running and much-loved radio comedy.