4 stars out of 5 stars
Based on the Radio 4 series, this spoof, now at the Criterion, is informed and quick-witted
In the wake of the controversy over the BBC’s rewritten, ‘gritty’ Great Expectations, it’s either the best of times or the worst of times to bring to the West End Mark Evans’ stage-version of his award-winning Radio 4 Dickensian spoof (2007-2012), as seen at the Watermill, Newbury last year.
Best – because the idea of mucking about with the life and adventures of ‘Pip’ Pirrip, which Evans does with giddy abandon, via his young hero Pip Bin, is au courant; and the primary source should still be fresh in people’s minds. Worst – because the ‘Why can’t we have a straight adaptation?’ brigade might seize on this show as final evidence of a world lost to its own facile preoccupations.
The thing is, though, that Evans’ send-up of that classic, and other relevant tomes, is so informed and quick-witted it doesn’t just fly the flag for intelligent parodies it salutes Dickens’ genius. Its wry modern eye does, in passing, take on and mock relevant period elements, whether it be flamboyant sentimentality and contrasting repression, or colonial exploitation and female oppression. But it does this without losing its winning silliness or flogging the pastiche to death.
Though Caroline Leslie’s production affords a lavish set, including an avalanche of books and a pleasing array of doors to be slammed, the primary pleasure is old-school auditory; for every visual gag, there are about a dozen verbal ones – at least one a minute, an output that would make a Victorian industrialist cheer. Those unfamiliar with the series – or Dickens – will swiftly get up to speed, the overarching device that an elderly Pip Bin, now played by a cameo celebrity (changing every week), is imparting his youthful exploits.
Even a comedian as expert as Sally Phillips (heartily narrating the opening performances, abetted by a large stick-on tache) must glance at their script, jeopardising the rhythm. But these appearances are deftly integrated and the main cast are so clued-up that you could stick Ann Widdecombe in the role and it would probably still work (rest assured, future narrators are of the calibre of Robert Lindsay and Stephen Fry).
Dom Hodson remains appealingly eager as the bin-inventing hero, sent by his skulduggerous guardian Gently Benevolent (a leering John Hopkins) to extravagantly horrible boarding-school St Bastard’s, requiring an elaborate escape. JJ Henry is again unfailing jolliness and bonkers creativity personified as his best-friend Harry Biscuit, while Marc Pickering steals the show with a virtuosic gaggle of differently vile characters named Hardthrasher. English eccentricity at its madcap best.