Rough Haired Pointer are rapidly establishing themselves as one of the most inventive and entertaining new theatre companies out there. Their latest production filters George and Weedon Grossmith’s nineteenth-century comic bestseller through postmodern farce, spilling in joyfully chaotic fashion across the White Bear Theatre’s stage.
The Boy Who Cried, Rough Haired Pointer’s previous show, skilfully transposed fairy tale tropes and werewolf folklore into a darkly surreal, distinctly Brechtian landscape. It was a great, sharp-toothed marriage of form and content, which only stumbled by drawing out its conceit for too long. In some ways, the same is true here. The Diary of a Nobody pivots on a few cracking ideas that don’t really evolve throughout its two-hour running time.
But this feels much less of a problem when one of those ideas is to counterpoint the continual frustration of the hapless Charles Pooter’s best-laid plans with well-timed, often hilarious, slapstick meta-theatrics. It’s the perfect analogue for the Grossmith brothers’ satirical swipe at the clichés of contemporary diary-publishing.
Just as Pooter brilliantly undermines his attempts to portray himself as the hero of his narrative by proudly and uncomprehendingly recording his every terrible pun and folly-filled endeavour, this production gleefully pulls itself apart against the exaggerated black-and-white backdrop of a hyper-stylised set that evokes Weedon Grossmith’s original illustrations.
Here, an effortlessly amusing Jake Curran’s twitchy, frustrated Pooter must contend not only with the parade of colourful characters who bring mayhem to his carefully ordered life, but also with the obstacles of staging. He looks at us apologetically in awkward pauses as other cast members scramble to move a door on wheels from one side of the set to the other. He winces when a coat rack comes crashing down. Chairs get kicked over.
It’s all deliberate, of course – a cathartic, anarchic rush of silliness that makes us part of the joke. When someone rips pages from the diary, the cast stand and hum against a projected backdrop of the months passing. Such scenes have a spry nimbleness under Mary Franklin’s direction, as she wittily rummages through the toy-box of theatrical tricks to make us laugh at the absurdity of it all.
However, all this in-jokery would probably wear thin if it weren’t for the energy of the talented ensemble cast, who blitz with hilarious speed through the various characters who intrude on Pooter. The show is buoyed along by their ability to channel the on-stage madness – both intended and sometimes not – into all-embracing comedy. They genuinely seem to thrive on it. A bearded Geordie Wright is a particular Python-esque delight as Sarah the maid and giggling maniac Daisy Mutlar.
Cast member Shelley Lang was absent when I saw The Diary of a Nobody. That this never felt like a glaring issue is undoubtedly testament to the ensemble’s skill at adapting to unforeseen circumstances. But it’s also down to the quintessentially provisional nature of a production which draws its humour from letting its seams show. Characters like Mr Cummings and Mr Gowing, portrayed with the apt and pitch perfect precision of Punch caricatures, are easily shrugged off. In the end, it’s all role-play.
And, in the end, this only goes so far; and falling over a chair, however well done, is only funny for so long. Arguably exacerbated by being based on an inherently episodic book, this adaptation begins to run on the spot, not quite able to sustain its momentum until its final scene. And style steals a lead over substance in places, as the original’s wry use of Pooter as a lens onto a changing society tends to take a backseat to high-concept laughs.
But these criticisms shouldn’t be taken too heavily, because Rough Haired Pointer have succeeded in producing an effervescently enjoyable show that does something new and interesting with a well-loved classic. Performed by an exceptional cast, it has its limitations, but it also has a light touch, a strong voice and a killer sense of humour.