The Diary of a Nobody stage review (White Bear Theatre, Kennington)

Diary of a Nobody green light

Wonderfully weird madcap nonsense: imagine Monty Python staging a Victorian sitcom.
I’m “biast” (pro): am enjoying the work director Mary Franklin is staging

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

My adventures exploring London’s creative fringe continued last weekend when I attended a performance of a new production from director Mary Franklin of theatre company Rough Haired Pointer. (I’ve previously reviewed her The Boy Who Cried and Cleopatra.) This time I discovered a new (to me) pub theatre, the The White Bear Theatre in Kennington, South London, a long-running and storied venue. It’s a fabulous little space at the back of a friendly, unpretentious neighborhood pub… and it’s precisely the sort of place that the comedic protagonist of The Diary of a Nobodywould be horrified to be seen in.

Diaryis based on the novel — first serialized in 1888-9 in Punch magazine — by George and Weedon Grossmith, about Mr. Charles Pooter, a clerk in an unspecified sort of company in an unspecified sort of industry, but apparently the sort that allows him to get notions above his station (he might be in banking). Like aspirations toward an aristocratic lifestyle. Or aspirations toward publishing a diary of his mundane comings and goings — and his adventures in social climbing — that would be of interest to the general reading public. Evelyn Waugh apparently called it “the funniest book in the world,” and it has never gone out of print.

As adapted by Franklin, Diary plays like a Victorian sitcom by way of Monty Python. The cast — most of whom are portraying multiple characters — bounce around the small stage area and narrowly avoid tripping over the feet of the audience as they enact the desperate antics of Mr. Pooter and his wife, Carrie, to be seen as more refined and more worldly than they are, and inevitably failing to achieve this. The gangly Jake Curran as Charles seems ever in danger of knocking over the furniture, giving outsize expression to poor Pooter’s ambitions as too grand for his modest reality. The hints of Python come in Jordan Mallory-Skinner’s prim and precise gender-swapped portrayal of Mrs. Pooter. Just as with the Python boys’ drag characters, there’s a lot of insight to go with the drag, here into the long-suffering of a devoted wife in Mallory-Skinner’s Carrie. The seeming precariousness of putting a guy in a dress and diamond-drop earrings only adds to the often suspenseful nature of the humor. Just as we’re waiting for Charles’ yearnings to backfire on him, we’re also waiting for the poignance of the character of Carrie to get overwhelmed by camp. The former happens frequently; the latter not at all.

(This was my third look at Mallory-Skinner, who also appeared in CleopatraandThe Boy Who Cried, and it confirmed my initial impression of the actor from the first moment I saw him onstage: that I was watching a star of the future just getting started. He could be huge, if that’s what he’s after.)

The rest of the cast deftly swings among an array of characters the likes of which you’d expect to be to-ing and fro-ing in what is primarily a domestic setting — the postman, the butcher, the reverend, and so on — sometimes just by literally changing hats. (Astonishingly, the performance I attended saw one member of the cast, Shelley Lang, unable to appear, and all of her nine characters, as listed in the program, were divided among the rest of the cast, apart from Curran and Mallory-Skinner, who take only their central roles. I would never have guessed that anything was amiss: the show went as smoothly as madcap nonsense ever does.) Alexander Pritchett, among other roles, is hilariously gormless as the Pooters’ son, Lupin, who’s a bit useless. Geordie Wright, among other roles, is a hoot as Sarah, the Pooters’ maid. Porter Flynn mops up a slew of minor characters with cheeky aplomb.

The design of the production — by Carin Nakanishi, with illustrations by Carly Hounseli — has an air of the cartoonish about it, all stark lines and little color aping the look of, well, the very sort of line drawings, by Weedon Grossmith, that accompanied the original presentation ofDiary. It lends a wonderfully weird air of unreality — as if this story were just to the side of real life, but not too far off — to this highly amusing and very clever show.

The Diary of a Nobody runs through June 21st. Tickets are available at The White Bear Theatre is on August 11th, 17th, 18th, and 24th at the Kings Head Theatre in Islington.

The Diary of a Nobody, by George and Weedon Grossmith [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]

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