Matthew Francis's policy at Greenwich Theatre is to steer clear of the usual rumbustious Christmas fare, while still acknowledging time-honoured notions of Englishness in semi-traditional shows. After last year's The Prisoner Of Zenda he now returns to more staid Victorian values.
Keith Waterhouse has intercut George and Weedon Grossmith's 1890s satire Diary Of A Nobody with his own Mrs Pooter's Diary. The same succession of petty events is recounted from the respective points of view of undistinguished clerk Charles Pooter and his long-suffering wife Carrie.
The strength of the original book, taken up and modulated in Waterhouse's additions, is its painstaking attention to smallness and banality. Both the day-to-day occurrences and the characters of the Pooters themselves resolutely refuse to be earth-shattering. Mrs Pooter conceives a distant and unrequited attachment to a stationer; Mr Pooter is promoted to senior clerk. A supper party is deemed a catastrophe because a jam tart gets trodden into the carpet. The happy ending consists of the arrival of an "ice safe", an early refrigerator.
This is scarcely the stuff of drama, and Waterhouse makes no attempt to dramatise it. Because the individual narrative voices of Charles and Carrie are vital to the comic effect, he seldom even lets them interact on stage. When they trade lines all are delivered to the audience. The actual dialogue in this two-hour show takes up less than ten minutes. Director Francis works hard to convey the humour of the writing and add a bit of stage comedy: clouds of steam blow in from trains passing the Pooters' back window, and their silent, frenzied housemaid mugs wildly on every brief appearance.
Clive Swift's Pooter is on target, immersed in inconsequentiality and ridiculously pleased with his arthritic puns. "I'm afraid... they're frayed!" he chortles, drawing the deadpan comment in his wife's diary, "I sometimes wonder if my husband is a secret drinker." As Carrie, Patricia Routledge is of course cast to perfection. She has long since cornered the market in modern-day Mrs Pooters, and brings the same mastery to the original.
However, they are saddled with source material which is implacably non-theatrical.
For all the attempts to open up the "action", we are effectively listening
to recitations – fine recitations of amusing material, but they don't add
up to a play.
Besides, we all know the Pooters are now living in Downing Street.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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