The first play I directed was an adaptation of The Young Visitors by Daisy Ashford, a surreal comic novella written by a 7 year old girl. After the play one night an audience member suggested I read The Diary Of A Nobody, George and Weedon Grossmith’s Victorian cult comic classic. It’s the fictional diary of Charles Pooter, a chronically unlucky office clerk, who has just moved to a new house with his beloved wife Carrie, ne’er do well son Lupin, and hapless maid Sarah. The second I read it, I was entranced by it. It’s both entirely mundane, exceedingly touching, and bewitchingly strange.
The book’s comedy comes from the hapless Charles Pooter’s unfailing ability to embarrass himself, or get into scrapes. As Pooter’s life is full of accidents and drama, so is the history of the show. We lost the rights to a play we were meant to be staging very late on, and I remembered how I loved The Diary Of A Nobody when we read it. We quickly decided to stage that instead. The first time we did it our lead actress had to leave the show due to a family crisis the day before press night, meaning we had to completely restructure the show over night. What started as a cast of 6 is now whittled down to cast of 4. The last time we did it at the King’s Head the actor playing Lupin was so ill on press night that he had to have a bucket constantly prepped and ready on stage for him to vomit in if necessary. In rehearsals this time round, we were taken hostage by the whims of life when one of the cast members was rushed to hospital, but we made it work. However – as with Pooter – this show seems to thrive on disaster, getting better and stronger with every mishap we manage to beat!
The challenge to adapt The Diary of a Nobody into something lively and engaging for stage is that essentially in the book, nothing happens. Perhaps my favourite diary entry is: “April 13. -- An extraordinary coincidence: Carrie had called in a woman to make some chintz covers for our drawing-room chairs and sofa to prevent the sun fading the green rep of the furniture. I saw the woman, and recognised her as a woman who used to work years ago for my old aunt at Clapham. It only shows how small the world is.” It’s the stuff life is made of, but it needed great actors to make it into high drama. We celebrate this, by making it into high dramaIts zany humour comes from the fact that it celebrates the quirks, mishaps and mayhem of the everyday. Charles Pooter is an ordinary man, and as the audience are exposed to his embarrassments, made privy to his petty prejudices, and allowed to live his simultaneously unpredictable and entirely mundane life, they grow to feel a definite tenderness towards him. There is a moment in the show, another small victory, which always gets a spontaneous round of applause. Normally in theatre we celebrate the hero avenging his father, saving the world, leaving her husband. In Diary we celebrate finding a good butcher. I love that.
It's very modern in essence. The book was fundamental for example in the creation of Adrian Mole, but it shares its truth about real life with numerous shows now, Girls, Peep Show, Fleabag, My Family, Fawlty Towers, Family Guy, Arrested Development to name a few.
Structurally, Charles and Carrie’s marriage anchors the book and my adaptation. Their relationship isn’t dressed up. They resent and love one another, and I tried to preserve this wonderful mixture in the script, because it’s true to life. There is also a mania to the book, crackling beneath its contrived exterior and all the ponce of the excessively florid Victorian English. We’ve created a strange, sometimes surreal universe, something I’m drawn to, through playing with the silliness of Pooter’s reality, and all of ours.
The Diary of a Nobody was first published as a serial in Punch magazine, the publication responsible for the term ‘cartoon’ coming to mean funny illustration. We’ve honoured the memory of the illustrations through everything being painted white and outlined with black marker, and lots of the set is made of card and foam-board. All four cast members narrate the diary, and three of them play several characters in the comedy of Pooter’s life, which are often raging and hilarious caricatures. Adapting Diary for stage allows for the imagined to become real, giving everyone involved in the creation of the show license to be more daring for bigger laughs.
The show is lovingly tumbledown and ramshackle. The set, vulnerable to destruction at any moment; the mass of props, travelling back and forth and through the air; the music, played, sung and whistled by the actors; and the accumulating chaos of the outlandish multi-roling, rejoices in the skin-of-your-teeth nature of live theatre, and the fun of playing with plays. Every performance is unique, because the action evolves through the individual and overlapping talents of the actors, making every performance unique. In the show, if there’s a mistake, we go with it, and it has as much right to be there as something scripted. Anything could happen. It’s great fun.
Ultimately, however, this show is built around its performers. It was my love letter to their individual talents, celebrating them and allowing them free rein. It changes with every new member, which is astonishing to watch. This is the show’s fourth incarnation, but whereas the first three were produced in quick succession, this version has been refreshed by a two-year gap. We’ve bettered what previous audiences loved, and rejigged and reinvented to enliven it with new energy.
The Diary of a Nobody was the first show under the current King’s Head management, and it is among the last to be in the current building. Come and see it, and you’ll be participating in a little bit of history. Your coming may even be as historic as Pooter’s diary turned out to be…