Confession time. When I attended the Royal and Derngate’s Subscription Season launch in January, this was one of two productions that I wasn’t certain I was going to enjoy. I’m not familiar with the original book and I feared that it might be a little dated, a little stilted; a lot of Victorian pomposity and bluster and no substance.
Hah! How wrong I was! This is a truly super show. It’s laugh out loud funny from start to finish and each of its four performers is a star turn.
Mr Pooter is at the heart of it, a traditional Victorian man in many respects but with an interest in modern fads, like these wonderful new enamel paints (cue all the furniture turning red). The troubles that beset him are the same we have today – pesky builders who create more work than they repair; bankers who abuse the system to make money for themselves; obstructive pub bouncers; there’s a lot of similarities. And Mr Pooter’s honesty nearly always works against him, hence he doesn’t get into the pub, he unwittingly offends his wife so she goes off and stays with her friend, and he complies with his Godlike boss’s demand that he changes his holiday week so he misses out on the best view of Broadstairs beach.
Again, without having read the original, so I may be wide of the mark here, where I think this play could have gone wrong would be to accentuate the downside of Mr Pooter. He could be played as a pompous, tedious, self-deluded, self-aggrandising know-it-all. However, instead, this Mr Pooter is just so immensely likeable! Robert Daws plays him with an air of total joy. From the first few moments you are captured by his humanity and you want to be his friend. He is so pleased to be centre stage and delighted to say “Good evening” to everyone that you know you’re going to love him. When he comes up with his awful jokes you still laugh along with him, whereas if anyone else said them you’d run a mile. You identify with him throughout the evening because you are on his side and he is essentially one of the nicest people you could possibly know. Robert Daws’ performance is stand-out smashing. He connects instantly with the audience and we stand by his side the whole time. By the end of the show if anyone said anything unpleasant to him you’d have to get up and say “disrespect Mr Pooter and you disrespect me” and that might lead to some regrettable unfortunateness.
Supporting Mr Pooter are his three thespian acquaintances who play all the other characters in his life. They’re all great. Peter Forbes probably stands out because he plays (inter alia) Mr Pooter’s wife, Carrie, and his instant transformation into that character is amazing. A caring, loving look; a deft manoeuvre of the fingers to suggest sewing; the little girl transported in wonder at the Lord Mayor’s reception. Then in the flick of a heel he becomes Pooter’s blustery old Bicycling friend Cumming, and a host of others.
Steven Blakeley’s roles include Pooter’s gangly son Lupin, a sort of nineteenth century ne’er-do-well finance trader who turns from respectable to drunk to lovelorn youth with total ease as well as finding time to be the maid too. And I also loved the performance of William Oxborrow, providing the music and sound effects but also playing some of the roles including that of Lupin’s prospective playfully useless brother-in-law, which put me in mind of the late great Derek Royle if you were ever lucky enough to see him on stage. On top of all that, the performances of Daisy Mutlar and her friend Murray Posh have to be seen to be believed, and as for the cat….!
It’s directed by Gary Sefton who gave us Travels with My Aunt last year and you can see the influences. I really enjoyed that production but here he has developed that interaction between four actors taking on many roles and made it slicker, faster, more direct to the audience – basically funnier. Hugh Osborne’s writing delightfully theatricalises the novel format and mines the comic situations to great effect whilst credibly delivering the emotional moments too. Although being Victorians, the love moments are suitably stiff upper-lip.
The run is scheduled to end on 19th March but it would be a travesty if this production did not have a life beyond. It received one of the warmest responses I’ve seen in the Royal auditorium and I wholeheartedly recommend it! (In fact I am quite tempted to book for “Does Your Mother Come from Kettering?”)