Monday, June 9, 2014

'The Diary of a Nobody' at the White Bear Theatre, 8th June 2014

First published in 1888 as a serial in Punch magazine, The Diary of a Nobody shows us the humdrum domestic life of Charles Pooter, clerk in a non-descript, vaguely Dickensian finance firm. Orbiting him are his loving wife Carrie, his dissolute son Willie/Lupin and a gaggle of comedy grotesques.  It's a farcical comedy of manners that satirises the preoccupations of the Victorian middle-classes: Pooter is man on a quest for respectability, pitting himself against a capricious fate that takes a sadistic pleasure in hurling obstacle after obstacle into his path; from a raucous and randy bride-to-be for his dim son, to an Australian spiritualist determined to conduct a seance, to the comings and goings of his friends; Mr Cummings and Mr Gowing.

It's pun-laden names like these that reveal all too quickly where The Diary of a Nobody's comedy heart lies; in the silly, the groan-worthy and in all too painfully accurate English self-deprecation.  This is the kind of comedy whose natural home is on Radio 4 on a Sunday afternoon, perhaps sandwiched between I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue and Just a Minute.  They're polite laughs that come from a bourgeoisie gently satirising itself, a comedy that, at worst, ends up staid, static and toothless.

Thankfully Rough Haired Pointer's style immediately assuages most of these fears.  Though the setting is mannered and stiff, this production (like the actors within) is loose and gangly. a flail of limbs, wobbling scenery and action that amounts to just barely controlled chaos.  It's a show that feels on the verge of collapse.  As props skitter across the floor, scenery wobbles and costumes fall apart the show threatens to collapse like an overambitious souffle.  It never does and this unpredictability goes no small way towards injecting life into material that has the potential for comedic arthritus.

The serial nature of the original material means that the stage adaptation becomes, essentially, sketch comedy.  Carin Nakanishi, set and costume designer, seems to have grasped the sketch concept quite literally.  The entire set and most of the costumes are rendered in monochrome with the details picked out in a way that echoes the original illustrations.  It's an exceptionally well-realised aesthetic that's not only visually pleasing, but works beautifully in creating a Victorian setting on a (presumably) limited budget.

It's a little difficult to review the performances as we were informed at the start of the night that Shelley Lang was unable to make the show due to "an incident" (a rather ominous choice of words, I hope she's okay).  The brave and admirable solution was for the rest of the cast to cover for her at short notice, playing not only their bevvy of characters but hers as well.  I figure that things are jumbled up on stage when she's here, let alone when the rest of the cast is skating on thin ice.

As it turned out I only evers noticed one script on stage and it somehow worked within the ramshackle context of the rest of the play.  The lack of female presence gave proceedings a Pythonesque tinge, a group of men who know precisely how best to deploy their various personalities and physiques in the service of comedy.  The most obvious stand out is Jake Curran as the lead, a performance benefiting from his only having to play one character.  He's got a marvellous 'period-face' - his facial hair and bone structure making him look convincingly Victorian - something which, in combination with a killer deadpan stare, makes him a compelling lynchpin of sanity upon which to hang all the calamity.

Would love to live in a house decorated like this.
Jordan Mallory-Skinner is similarly excellent; playing Mrs Pooter with a waxy skinned, lizard-like demeanour.  Through razor-thin lips and narrowed accusatory eyes he plays the role as a woman frantically trying to suppress her feral urges.  Pleasantly, the Pooter marriage has a bedrock of genuine affection to it and the couple mostly enjoy each other's company  - reminding me of a 19th century Homer and Marge Simpson.

The only problem I have is with the length of the show.  I've never read the book, but it seems this adaptation takes in the whole 15 months covered in it.  When first conceived this material was designed to be consumed in bite-size chunks; each day a snapshot of life.  As there's no compelling narrative throughline and as things are so cartoonishly pitched it's difficult to really care about what's going to happen to these people.  As I said before, this makes the show essentially a series of comedy sketches and, as funny as they are, watching this many sketches featuring the same characters left me a little comedically exhausted.  Perhaps instead of a very funny two acts and an interval, the adaptation would have been better served as an extraordinarily funny, shorter one-act show.

That said, it's a minor criticism - and something 'merely' being very funny isn't really so awful.  This is an insanely talented group of individuals, all of whom click together on stage like clockwork.  It's fascinating to see them move around, paying close attention to how the others move and reacting to their jokes, mistakes and microscope decisions in each scene.  At best, it's almost as if this 126 year old material is being improvised on the spot.

The Diary of a Nobody is at the White Bear Theatre, 138 Kennington Park Rd
SE11 4DJ - 3rd - 21st June in the evenings.  Tickets available here.

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