The absurdities of dogma

Noonday Demons – Rough Haired Pointer @ King’s Head Theatre, until 01 August 2015 (tickets)

Watching Rough Haired Pointer revive Peter Barnes’ 1969 play, Noonday Demons, Civilian Theatre could not help but reflect on the problems that arise from knowing a theatre company’s past work. Civilian Theatre is a recent convert to the charms of the company, which occurred after being captivated by their sharp, ingenious and extremely funny adaptation of The Diary of a Nobody. It was such a highly stylised work, both in Karina Nakaninsky’s set and costume design and also in the clearly tight-knit ensemble performances of the cast, that an impression was left of a company with a clear, visual identity.

As a result it proved disconcerting to enter the King’s Head Theatre and be presented with a sparse set drenched in a hazy, warm light that very much suggests a barren cave in a distant desert. Equally the sight of Jordan Mallory-Skinner as a bearded, dishevelled monk teetering on the brink of, or possibly have long having lost his grip on, sanity standing in front of a totemic mound of human dung jarred with my last sight of him playing the charming, if long-suffering, Mrs Pooter.

That these feelings arose is clearly not the fault of the company and should not have a bearing on Noonday Demons. Yet it is right to mention them as they may help to explain why, despite fitfully exploding into life, the production never quite manages to convince.

This is the second of Barnes’ earlier work to be restaged in the space of the year. The Jamie Lloyd-directed The Ruling Class had the distinct advantage of being able to call upon the A-list talent of James McAvoy to shift tickets and, looking around the auditorium, the King’s Head Theatre  illustrates the current appeal of the playwright without a star name attached.

Barnes is a fascinating writer, capable of highly inventive scenarios that intrigue, but he frustrates as much as he satisfies. Over the course of an excessive 2½hr running time, The Ruling Class proved itself flabby and rather dull. The humour disappeared entirely for large sections, and it was only thanks to the explosive energy of Mr McAvoy’ brilliant lead performance that the production avoided disaster. Thankfully Noonday Demons is far shorter, and contains a wonderful premise of two saints battling for control of a cave in which to spend their hermetic isolation, the rivalry spiralling absurdly into the extremes as they battle to demonstrate they are the most devoted.

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IMG_4060 These are courtesy of Rocco Redondo.

The play where everybody is somebody and anybody is nobody.

The Diary of a Nobody – Rough Haired Pointer @ King’s Head Theatre, until 14 February (Tickets)

It feels appropriate that The Diary of a Nobody should kick off the new King’s Head Theatre season in January. For how many nibs have been sharpened, fresh pages turned and inner-most thoughts committed to paper since the start of the year? And how many, begun with the best of intentions, are already gathering an unholy combination of dust and regret?

That so many are abandoned is hardly surprising, for it takes a rare blend of solipsism and dedication to commit to the task of capturing your thoughts for posterity. The jeu d’esprit of the professional raconteur is a rare talent, and even celebrated diarists of the stature of Alan Clarke or Christopher Isherwood can be heavy going if read cover to cover.

Literary triumphs recognise the average diary writer is nothing like these people; rather they prick, with considerable acuity, the pomposity of the English middle classes. In modern times we have the brilliance of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole, whose sense of his own self-importance is drolly sent-up in his teenage obsession with Malcolm Muggeridge. The Victorians, who certainly knew a thing or two about pomposity, had one Charles Pooter of the The Laurels, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway.

The creation of George and Weedon Grossmith, Pooter is a character that grew larger than the book that contained him (a fact that would have pleased him greatly if he didn’t stop to find out why). To be ‘Pooterish’ is to have a vastly inflated sense of one’s own importance and to take oneself far too seriously. In today’s world of internet blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook sharing, it is a word that has more relevance than ever before (and yes, Civilian Theatre recognises that ‘glass houses’ and ‘stones’ comes to mind here).

Rough Haired Pointer has taken on the difficult task of adapting the wonderful comic novel, The Diary of a Nobody – the lasting chronicle of Charles Pooter, his family, friends and servants. They do so with energetic vigour and considerable panache, as four actors take it upon themselves to play 45 characters across 100 minutes in a space with nowhere near enough room to swing a cat.

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