Charles Dickens first penned the satirical Bleak House as a 20-episode serial following which it was published as a novel in 1853. With its array of characters connected through the tale of a family waiting in vain to inherit money from a disputed fortune in the settlement of a lawsuit that has gone on for so long that no one knows what it’s about anymore, and despite criticism from the legal profession, it was eventually to influence judicial review and reform in the 1870s.
Considered by many to be Dickens greatest work and the forerunner of the detective novel, given the abuse of power evident in recent times – PPE anyone? – who better than the critically acclaimed The Pantaloons to resurrect this indictment of the self-serving public life enshrined in Parliament, provincial aristocracy, and alleged philanthropy, as they make merry mischief through murder, romance, tragedy, and fog. And rain. And soot. Oh, and not forgetting bricks. Well, it is a Victorian adventure after all.
Originally a stage production written by Stephen Purcell and directed by Mark Hayward, it has been adapted and directed for radio by Alex Rivers, with additional contributions from Hayward and the cast with music by Purcell. Produced by Rivers and Chris Coxon, with sound production and editing by Coxon, it features a cast of five – Edward Ferrow; Rivers; Emily Beach; Neil Jennings; and Coxon – bringing over fifty characters to life as they weave love, skulduggery, and just a touch of spontaneous combustion, with inimitable Pantaloons flourish.
With 67 chapters and some bonus out-takes providing almost three hours entertainment, the piece is perfectly structured to be either listened to in full, à la the modern-day binge, or in more manageable portions with the narration, alternating between Dickens (Ferrow) and Esther (Rivers), setting each chapter in context, and introducing new characters. I personally recommend putting aside some time as I predict, like me, you will find it impossible to stop listening once you have started, and what a delightful afternoon’s entertainment it proved to be.
The Pantaloons are renowned for their colourful costumes and visual performances, but the absence of a venue is no barrier to the richness they provide in this more considered – dare I say subtle – production with their onomatopoeic word play to the fore as they paint remarkable pictures throughout my imagination, and still find time for some audience interaction with the anachronistic use of a telephone.
All the cast were fantastic in their many-varied roles, distinguishable only by air and accent: Ferrow’s Mr Tulkinghorn was suitably controlling whilst Rivers’ Grandmother Smallweed was cause for much hilarity; Beach’s Lady Dedlock was notably haughty whilst Coxon’s Inspector Bucket provided much insight. And what can I say about Jennings’ Mademoiselle Hortense? I’ll never look at him in the same way again…
All of this couldn’t have been achieved without the support of their fans whose crowdfunding raised £12,000 to take the production from stage to radio, and who in return received an advanced digital copy.
If you’ve enjoyed The Pantaloons perform previously then you’ll love this audio production in the comfort of your own home or on the move; if you’re new to them then I highly recommend you check it out as you too will soon be a fan: Dickens would love it!
Bleak House – A Radio Play will soon be available via iTunes and other stores, further details at https://thepantaloons.co.uk/
With The (almost) Complete History of Britain on Zoom in April, The Pantaloons are also touring three open-air productions this summer: Pride and Prejudice; The Tempest; and Wind in the Willows. Full details and booking at https://thepantaloons.co.uk/shows/
Reviewer: Mark Davoren
Reviewed: 13th February 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★