Fringe Online 2021
Directed by Gabriella Bird for JST’s Footprints Festival. Designed by Louie Whitmore. Lighting by Johanna Town, Lighting Associate Tom Lightbody, Sound Design Tom Attwood, Costume Designer Claire Nicolas, Rehearsal Stage Managers Sophie Jefferson, Alan Eden Barker.
Props and thanks to John Nicholson’s Auctioneers, Fatima Nicholson, Richard Lambert, Liz Peck, Deryk Cropper at RADA, The Miller Center.
Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced. Till July 31st. Filmed and may be later available as stream.
From Poulenc’s wholly anachronistic and completely fitting 1962 Clarinet Sonata we’re launched into the unbearable Britishness of being. Edward Baker-Duly and Miranda Foster star as a couple we read by lightning flashes of a diary. And not just any diary.
With the line: ‘April 26th. Got some more red enamel paint, and painted the coal-scuttle’ immortality begins in a new home: The Laurels, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway. Shaking off the dust of Peckham. And stepping into red enamel paint. Down to painting the bath. Pity it’s water-soluble.
And it’s only fitting. George and Weedon Grossmith’s 1892 The Diary of a Nobody is a bliss of malapropisms spawning one neologism: Pooterism. Sort of Arthur Lowe flecked with James Beck. Keith Waterhouse’s 1986 adaptation proves yet again why this immortal work of trivial people lends itself to drama. Which it would. George Grossmith was the leading Gilbert and Sullivan actor; Weedon a theatre-manager and playwright. Of course they make the Pooters despise music-hall. Frequent Waterhouse collaborator Ned Sherrin took the play further, crafting a musical from music-hall haters. We get music-hall too, the Pooters diddled by a disreputable wine merchant.
More, Waterhouse empowers two diarists, not one. Clerk Charles Pooter – assiduous, thin-forelocking superiors and touchingly deferential as well as a garlic crusher of a snob – deems himself respectable and gently on the rise. And a man on the cusp of discovering terrible puns, deeming them sublime.
So even before Sarah George’s exquisite 1998 Journal of Mrs Pepys, Waterhouse obliges with a counter-Charles. Pooter’s wife Carrie seems to go along with Charles but edges in over her husband with any double entry he’ll make. From the start she sneaks peeks (courtesy director Gabriella Bird), and at one terrible moment Pooter discovers several pages torn out. Waterhouse’s editing turns to conspiracy as we learn new resentments only simmering in the original – how Carrie hates the house with its train-soot coating, noise, sometimes people. It develops a raucous antiphony. Couples locked in together over months. Strangely familiar.
Directed by Bird for JST’s remarkable Footprints Festival, it’s designed with exquisite fustian by Louie Whitmore with props from John Nicholson’s Auctioneers amongst others. The actors assemble some furniture themselves, moving into their new home – more solidly there’s an empire desk, a white-clothed table, a laden hatstand, screen, half-painted flowerpots, an upright piano festooned with photos, and late-Victorian knick-knacks. Plus the ubiquitous two period chairs. Baker-Duly’s a fine pianist, and Foster blissfully terrifying in ‘The Mocking Bird’, like a red-enamelled door scraper. That takes singing skills.
A sepia look seeps in overall, though all lighting plays on the curtains. Claire Nicolas’ costumery is exquisitely wrought, with the occasional addition of top hats. Tom Attwood’s magnificent sound design from tinkling piano to the deafening effects of trains passing, stopping like a rail-disaster, rain, vase shattering and music-hall off, is first-rate. Those rattling trains prove a plot-point.
Lighting by Johanna Town (Lighting Associate Tom Lightbody) is Victorian gas-lamp and intense jewel reds and blues for a disreputable music-hall in Islington
Set-pieces include the invitation to the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House ball. It starts in ecstasy, but ends with Carrie eating, Charles drinking champagne and their ironmonger inferiors like Mr Farmason knowing aristocrats when they themselves know no-one. Alas champagne impedes waltzes – collapse of stout party. And days of recriminations, omitted then misprinted names, Caroline staying away with a friend for weeks.
Then there’s twelve Belgian hare-rabbits Charles has half a mind to. ‘Only a man with half a mind would think so…’ ‘A man must have a hobby.’ ‘Why not paint another brick?’
Their son Willy, self-christened with his middle name Lupin – we’re on shaky ground already with that name – reckons he can do far better by doing very little, scorns his class and is on the lig. He’s the original Yuppie, seemingly 100 years too early but someone whose risk-taking and cleverness are well-concealed. Forget Karl Marx freshly mouldering in Highgate: real class warfare begins here. Grafters versus grifters.
Then there’s the small business of Lupin leaving his bank, Charles’ frantic scramble to find him employment (finally securing his own boss Mr Perkupp) Lupin has little intention of staying at. His sudden towering fiancée owns the same tendencies. The Grossmiths hint at an arty-nouveau-riche world of Mutlars and Poshes just out of sight.
Permanently so in Charles’ drunken attempts in what George Grossmith excelled at: ‘The model of a modern major-general’ where Baker-Duly’s accompanied by Foster. It’s mercifully brief. There’s tribulations with Lupin, promotion looked for and unlooked-for, and an American mage, Mr Hardfur Huttle. And indulgence. ‘Must be lobster poisoning’ Pooter exclaims. ‘Champagne poisoning more like’ Carrie snaps back, ‘the lobster’s drunk all the champagne.’
When real husband-and-wife duo Judi Dench and Michael Williams launched this play, Williams cast in the heroic mould still managed Lowe-life Pooterisms.
Baker-Duly’s a little port-out as Pooter – more like a Victorian doctor or solicitor, but otherwise harrumphingly well-caught, touched in with vulnerabilities you feel. As Lupin and a cast-sweep from frail-voiced Perkupp and grandees to ‘inferiors’ Mr Farmason or Mr Tipper – the vet who proposes a house-swap to Carrie – he excels.
Foster too manages a small gallimaufry but is more frequently herself, more often exasperated. Never overdoing vinegar, she’s on the cusp of warmth or flounce, gifted with extra pretensions from Waterhouse.
Waterhouse’s version makes an exquisite reduction in the JST space: a warm-hearted yet sharp-witted peek at how the Pooter half live.