Writer: Jonathan Ap Emrys from the book by George and Weedon Grossmith
Director: Robert F Ball
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
FRED Theatre specialise in in taking classic stories and giving them a contemporary flavour. Their latest project is based on the Victorian comic novel, The Diary of a Nobody. This has been updated to be set in 21st century London, although still sticking closely to the novel’s structure. The story is one of simple people with simple pleasures. And this play is certainly a simple pleasure – with the emphasis firmly on pleasure. It centres around the family and friends of Charles Pooter, a sales executive in London. Charles describes himself as ‘social ladder climber. Technical middle class, according to recently completed internet survey’ and we see him record his life over a 15 month period. At the beginning, Charles and his wife Carrie have much to look forward to having moved to a larger but more expensive house in a better district of London. We meet their friends, employer and, later, their layabout son, William (who pretentiously insists on being called by his middle name, Lupin). Their story is told simply through the small triumphs and setbacks of daily life. Aspirational, they covet the lifestyle of their perceived betters – for example, when they are invited to the Lord Mayor’s charity ball for representatives of trade and industry, or hold a dinner party in honour of Lupin’s engagement. But they are routinely humiliated when everything seems to go wrong, for example, when Charles gets drunk on cheap champagne at the Mayor’s Ball or, in a painfully accurate and hilarious piece of observation, a theatre visit to impress Carrie’s friends turns out to be to be to a dreadful devised dance piece above a pub. But as time goes on, good things come to them – Charles is promoted and Lupin eventually comes good. Little of import happens, but this is the diary, literally, of a nobody.
The story is brought to vivid life through the writing of Jonathan Ap Emrys. He has taken the original story and brought it up to date quite seamlessly, welding together the momentous (to the Pooters) as well as the trivial (a discussion about the quality of breakfast sausages). His punchy script is heavy on pace, pathos and punning. His writing is done full justice by the superb direction of FRED founder Robert F Ball. This enables the cast of only five to cover the many rôles throughout the play, moving from one character to the next smoothly. The simple set, also designed by Ball, allows the production to flow and hence maintains the pace. But it is the outstanding central performance of James Parsons as Charles Pooter that really carries the show. He is absolutely believable in the rôle of the ever hopeful Pooter, forever trying to make sense of that which goes on around him and conversing with the audience through the medium of his ongoing diary. As much is said through his mobile and expressive face and body language as in the mass of lines he has to deliver. A major support is Sarah Gordon as the put upon Carrie. Gordon is also fully believable as the loyal power behind the throne, destined to be ever disappointed. The rest of the cast play a myriad of characters between them. Most notable is Mark Spriggs who turns his hand to Pooter’s slightly common friend, Gowing, his amiable boss, Pickup, and a rather unpleasant scammer among others. Differentiation between these characters is achieved by small items of costume but principally simply by, well, being a different character. However, the performance of Lee Davies as son Lupin and friend Cummings is carried off with less aplomb. He is never quite believable as the lazy but ambitious son who looks down on his perceived humble upbringing, bringing more than a touch of caricature to his performance.
Nearly two hours of performance positively fly by, the whole being very enjoyable and bringing wry smiles and chuckles of recognition throughout the audience, especially in the mutual incomprehension and generation gap Pooter and Lupin struggle to overcome. This adaptation certainly stands up to scrutiny and comes highly recommended.
Runs until 29th January