I had some misgivings, since I know the 1892 book by George and Weedon Grossmithalmost by heart: born in an age whose Punch-ish humour does not always chime with us (oh, those heavy servant-girl cartoons!) , it stands apart and remains one of the greatest bits of understated comic writing ever. The only stage production I have known to come near its glory was years ago at the Old Vic , when Judi Dench and Michael Williams played the Pooters. Never forgot how – even from the very back stalls – you could see Dench, without seeming to move a muscle, allowing her face to fall from hopeful wifely expectancy to resigned disgruntlement.

But I sought this out because Mary Franklin’s Rough Haired Pointer company did such a beautiful job before on The Young Visiters, so had proved her sense of 1890’s period and inventive small-cast staging – in that case a ramshackle, toybox style with rolling screens and outfits as crazily makeshift as a nursery dressing-up box. And after an awkward start (piano chords kept too long and loud in the first scene, becoming oppressive) this one more than lived up to expectations. The cast – four young men – are set in clothes looking artfully like drawings – as does the set, by Karina Nakaninsky and Christopher Hone – so there is immediately a sense of old illustrations coming to life.

Narration is mainly by Pooter – Jake Curran, who alone remains in one character – and sometimes by others, following the book with occasional refreshing, barmy breakouts. With unfussed, minimal props and hats Geordie Wright is Cummings, and the maid, and the ironmonger, and – memorably – Daisy Mutlar, a potential daughter-in law from hell. George Fouracres is another group, notably and memorably Mrs James of Sutton and the equally horrendous Our Girl Lillie Posh. I did wonder why the single-sex casting, but on the other hand the sad fact is that no female simpers and flounces better than young men do.

Which brings me to the greatest joy. Jordan Mallory-Skinner, also credited with the music and soundscape, spends most of the play as Mrs Carrie Pooter. And the boy is a riot. He has no wig – merely a fetchingly brushed quiff – and a simple long skirt. But his air of injured, hopeful wifehood, his folded, appalled face, his tight-lipped control, is so continuously painfully funny that I could hardly take my eyes off him. The Mansion House scene is a joyful thing indeed. Some performers just have – well, funny bones. No other way to put it. The other three all do excellent work, but the memory that lingers is of Mallory-Skinner momentarily lightening as Pooter makes some gallant gesture, and sinking – Dench-like – back into gritted disappointment. Beautiful.

http://www.kingsheadtheatre.com to 14 Feb
rating: four 4 Meece Rating


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