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Homage to George Grossmith 

by on 24 July 2022

Gilbert and George

Homage to George Grossmith 

by Tim Shaw and J.J.Leppink

Blue Fire Theatre Company at the Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham, then at The Space on the Mile, Edinburgh Fringe until 27th August

Review by Andrew Lawston

Blue Fire Productions is presenting two of its Edinburgh Fringe Festival shows – Diary of a Nobody and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Nightmare as a double bill entitled Homage to George Grossmith.  This is a reference both to the co-author of George and Weedon Grossmith’s 1892 book Diary of a Nobody, adapted by Tim Shaw, and to the fact that George Grossmith was a principal performer in the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, originating many of the baritone roles in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas.  Producer Lottie Walker gives a brief introduction before the first show, and we begin without further ado.

Diary of a Nobody

Evelyn Waugh once said that The Diary of a Nobody, published in 1892,was the “funniest book in the world”.  It is certainly the funniest book published in 1892.  Tim Shaw’s adaptation crams a huge amount of the book’s material into this fifty minute show.

Sitting in a comfortable armchair with a glass of wine within easy reach, diary in hand, Andy Smith plays Charles Pooter, a city clerk who has recently moved to a six-roomed house (not counting the basement) in Holloway, with his wife, Carrie.  He has resolved to keep a diary, and while the first few entries consist of berating himself for not moving his boot-scraper, events soon escalate.  His adult son, William, moves back home and declares that not only has he been fired from his position at a bank in Oldham, but that he now prefers to be known by his middle name, Lupin.

Lupin Pooter further outrages his somewhat pompous father by joining an amateur dramatics society, which provokes one of the biggest laughs of the afternoon from the Mary Wallace Theatre’s audience, and by getting engaged to fellow amateur dramatist Daisy Mutlar.

Charles continues to narrate his mundane adventures, which often involve him drinking glasses of champagne which his wife diligently reminds him “doesn’t agree with him”.  The overall impression is of a lower middle class man anxious to preserve the status that a lifetime of hard work has brought him, but keenly aware of its fragility.  There is a quiet moment when Charles is presented with a bar bill which he can barely afford to cover, and he is subsequently forced to walk most of the way home because he can’t afford to pay the cab fare.  Although Pooter is clearly the butt of his own memoir, the audience still feels for his predicament.

This gentle tale of middle-class shenanigans is capably and calmly narrated by Andy Smith, reading from Charles Pooter’s diary and occasionally slipping effortlessly between characters to take on the accent and mannerisms of Pooter’s various acquaintances, from the gruff Mr Crowbillon to the drawling American free-thinker Hardfur Huttle.

Diary of a Nobody is a play full of wry chuckles rather than belly laughs, but the audience is gripped throughout by Smith’s one-man performance, broken only by the occasional musical interlude between diary entries.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s Nightmare

Alan Bennett has an anecdote about an actor who once played a postman in Emmerdale for a few weeks.  “Only I haven’t done any since,” he says, “I don’t think they’re getting much mail.”

Ed Barrett takes this archetype and runs with it, as Old Adam in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Nightmare, by J.J.Leppink.  Lurching on the stage in an ancient, dusty tailcoat, the aged wild-haired stagehand and occasional walk-on performer reminisces about his time in the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, working with, and even occasionally talking to, Gilbert and Sullivan – although he assures the audience that during one of the pair’s spats, he “testified against both of them”.

As Old Adam prepares a recital for what he insists is a lifetime achievement award at a gala performance, with the world-weary help of James Hall as the Pianist, he gives a potted history of his career, interspersed with lively renditions of well-known Gilbert and Sullivan songs.  The musical interludes are always entertaining, even though Old Adam has trouble with the tempo, the pitch, and even hysterically insists on working from the lyrics he transcribed from performances from his post in the wings on stage right.  “They were marching,” he says at one point, “and it was difficult to make it all out when they turned to stage left.”

Barrett’s committed physical performance as the hunched, gangly Old Adam gets as many laughs from the audience as his singing voice and his bittersweet anecdotes.  He is a figure of quiet desperation, the understudy’s understudy who we are told played the role of Private Willis in Iolanthe, to the intense pride of his mother … who came to see the show after the original actor had recovered from illness, but she was never any the wiser as she was sitting up in the balcony seats.

James Hall gives a wonderfully deadpan turn as the Pianist, although his modern keyboard and dress do create a certain amount of confusion as to precisely when the play is supposed to be set.  His occasional interjections are perfectly-timed, especially his brief dance routine, performed as a response to Old Adam’s “choreography”.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s Nightmare is a breezy comic work which whistles through its running time and leaves the audience wanting more.

George Grossmith links the two productions, both ably directed by Steve Taylor.  Both, despite James Hall’s admirable contribution as the Pianist, are essentially one-man shows featuring tour-de-force performances.  But they could not be more different in terms of tone and pace.  Where Diary of a Nobody is a sedate, witty affair, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Nightmare is a wild, brisk, vaudeville piece, like a one-man Waiting for Godot.  Both pieces deserve an enthusiastic audience, and one hopes they will find this at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Andrew Lawston, July 2022

Photography by courtesy of Blue Fire

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