What’s the funniest book ever written? The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy? Tristram Shandy? One of the many Jeeves and Wooster’s? Something by Evelyn Waugh? It’s all highly subjective of course but one format that invariably throws up good comedy are the outpourings of a fictional diarist such as Adrian Mole or Bridget Jones. And one of the first to tap into that particular vein was brothers George and Weedon Grosssmith’s The Diary Of A Nobody which gave the world the pompous business clerk Charles Pooter and his daily life in late Victorian London. Just about a hundred years after publication, novelist/playwright Keith Waterhouse came up with the ingenious notion of writing a companion book called Mrs Pooter’s Diary written from the perspective of long suffering wife Carrie. Just a few years after that Waterhouse conflated and abridged the texts of the two books to form the stage piece Mr And Mrs Nobody which has now been revived as part of Jermyn Street Theatre’s ongoing Footprints Festival.
It’s a neat conceit seeing some of the famous scenes from a double perspective as the couple move house from Peckham to Holloway, wrestle with the minutiae of setting up their new home, entertain the neighbours, deal with tradespeople and occasionally go to the theatre or a dance or on their annual holiday. And then there’s the ongoing saga of their son Lupin’s love life and business dealings – he’s enough to make his father despair but his mother still loves him. Necessarily truncated in order to fit everything into a couple of hours – it’s a particular shame the climactic séance had to go and there’s nothing at all about Pooter’s obsession with the bicycle – Waterhouse’s script is adept at juxtaposing the two viewpoints from which a great deal of the comedy arises. Carrie, particularly, pricks Pooter’s pomposity even though she is kind enough not to do it to his face and becomes an equally well developed character.
I was lucky enough to see Judi Dench and Michael Williams play these roles in the original production (late 1980s) after the success of their TV series A Fine Romance. This time round it falls to Miranda Foster and Edward Baker-Duly who make a good double act although I could have done with a bit more contrast between them. Much of the fun of Pooter’s character lies in his stuffy pomposity and lack of self-awareness as he elevates minor incidents to the realms of a crisis and Baker-Duly came across as rather too amiable and easy going in his demeanour to be the uptight social climber of the original. Foster has the better time of it as she shows us both the dutiful and rather dull wife which Pooter imagines her to be but also Waterhouse’s quiet rebel with a cause – the cause being the acquisition of a Wenham Ice Safe, the latest must have. The pair (though mostly as it turns out Baker- Duly) also give us pen portraits of the other characters that inhabit this world.
As with all of Jermyn Street’s festival offerings the play is staged simply with just some curtaining and Victorian parlour furnishings while costumes, which don’t seem to be always strictly of the period, are generally used well to delineate situations. Gabriella Bird directs with an appropriate eye to the comedy which flows well despite the occasional misbehaving prop or flubbing of a line or two; indeed, they serve to show the underlying vulnerabilities of the characters. This show is the third of the three anchor plays in this festival (the others were Two Horsemen and Lone Flyer) and although it may not have the most important of messages to convey, it has certainly been the most fun. As I have copies of both the original books I fancy I shall go back and fill in some of the gaps by attempting a cross reading of the pair. This will be, as Lupin regularly puts it, “a good biz!”
Mr And Mrs Nobody is available via the Jermyn Street website – click here
The full programme for the Footprints Festival at Jermyn Street Theatre is here
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