Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Mary Franklin: Diary Of A Nobody

By | Published on Thursday 22 January 2015

You may well have read ‘The Diary Of A Nobody’, but not everyone will have, so I should explain that it started out as a serial in Punch magazine, created by brothers George and Weedon Grossmith during the late 1880s, and later became a book, published in 1892.

It was acclaimed by the likes of Evelyn Waugh and JB Priestley, and has been adapted for stage and screen on a number of occasions. Following a successful London run in the summer, clever and innovative theatre group Rough Haired Pointer return to King’s Head Theatre to again bring this well-loved story to life.

Attracted by the sound of this adaptation, in which a small cast take on lots of roles, against the backdrop of a charmingly evocative set, I sent director Mary Franklin some questions, to find out more about the play, as well as her company, and why she named it after a breed of dog…

CM: What made you decide to stage an adaptation of ‘The Diary Of A Nobody’? Are you a fan of the book?
MF: I love the book, but I only discovered it through our first production ‘The Young Visiters’, an adaptation of the novel by Daisy Ashford, seven years old. More than one audience member said to me “you must do The Diary Of A Nobody next” which at the time I hadn’t read. I eventually got round to doing so and, as soon as I read the Teddy Finsworth scene, I knew we would be able to do it justice.

CM: How hard was it to adapt and stage the piece? Did you feel a sense of responsibility towards the writers of the original story?
MF: Adapting the piece and deciding how to stage it was probably the hardest part of the artistic process. The novel is essentially one man talking, and there isn’t a huge amount of dialogue. We workshopped it before the first run and played with some ideas which seem absolutely mad now but which stayed for quite a lot of rehearsals. There was a point where one of the cast had to repeatedly and suddenly become a stuffed bear…

But eventually we landed on the idea of having everyone on stage narrating and representing Pooter, which suddenly made the piece make sense. I have always been drawn to the ‘every man’ quality of Pooter, and it’s very much part of the novel I want to take away.

In terms of responsibility to the writers, I actually felt more responsibility to the audience. The Grossmiths’ are both long dead and I am absolutely certain (I have no idea why) they would love our production, but I very much wanted to please the people who know the novel off by heart – and once you start looking there are a lot of them. Everyone has a different favourite Pooter moment and I wanted to make sure they were properly represented in our piece. I hope we have achieved it.

CM: For the uninitiated, can you tell us what the show is about, and what happens? Without giving too much away of course…
MF: The show is about one man, Mr Pooter, who is a very ordinary man. He is a happily married city clerk, with a ne’er-do-well son, ever disappointing friends and a terrible housemaid. It makes affectionate comedy out of the joys and mishaps of an ordinary suburban life. He is continually making mistakes and embarrassing himself – but aren’t we all?

And what our show is very much about is that Pooter is content with his very ordinary life as a nobody. I realised when working on it how rare it was to have a show or story which ends happily and where the character is essentially content with his lot throughout. At the heart of our adaptation, and I believe the novel, is Pooter’s incredibly happy and true to life marriage. I personally think it is one of the greatest love stories ever told in a very ordinary down to earth Pooter way…

CM: ‘The Diary Of A Nobody’ originated in Punch magazine in the late 1800s. Do you think it’s still easy relate to now? Are there ways in which you have put a more modern spin on it?
FM: Absolutely. Pooter decides to self publish incredibly mundane facts about his life. Essentially he invented twitter and blogging… We wanted to keep it in the period – there is the best kind of surrealism and weird skittishness in the Victorian character that appeals to our work as a company but the piece never feels dated. Pooter is continually having to beg his hungover son to hang out with him for example – it’s essentially modern sitcom but written 200 years ago.

CM: The set and costume look very interesting – does the design reflect the original illustrations? Who came up with this idea?
FM: Me and Carin Nakanishi, who did the original design for the show. Yes, it is very much intended to reflect the Grossmiths’ illustrations. The show’s design has evolved for this production thanks to the work of the wonderful Christopher Hone, so it often looks like the characters are the illustrations coming to life which was our original idea – so it is sort of like seeing my imagination realised!

CM: This isn’t your first outing for this show, is it? Has it changed or developed at all since the first run? Are there plans for further dates, or a tour?
FM: Well we started with 6 actors and as I realised the skill of my company and also the incredible effect of someone having to play about 30 characters in 5 minutes we whittled it down to 5 and then to 4 as it is now. It changes every night. I never get tired of watching it as it is never the same twice.

As a director I continue tweaking pieces up to the last night but Diary is mainly in the hands of the cast who improvise and ad lib continually and very brilliantly at breakneck speed. The set is designed to act as a sort of endurance test / playground for the cast, and a different bit gets smashed every night.

CM: I am quite fond of rough haired pointers, and indeed, pointers in general. How did the company get its name?
FM: Well, me and Carin brainstormed literally hundreds of names, and then I looked down at my own dog and thought hang on a second… The name fits surprisingly well for what we do – our work is rough around the edges, but is carried on by a motivation in the characters and a plot. Basically it’s another word for organised chaos, the way I see it. Plus he is a very lovely dog, and he’s now graduated from being in rehearsals to on stage in our last show Marco Polo.

CM: How and why did you bring the company together, and what are your aims as a group?
FM: Carin Nakanishi and I set it up in June 2013, and at that point it was just us. It has now grown to include a producer, a composer and most importantly a group of actors with whom we work continually. Our work is intentionally rough around the edges, celebrating the elements of chance and play in live drama. I am excited by risk in theatre – it is what sets it apart from all other mediums. Working together repeatedly has established trust and a dynamically creative company relationship which I value above all. We make work that could only be seen in the theatre, and only made by us. Our personalities shape the work, in the same way the text or space does and I am incredibly lucky to have found such wonderful actors very early on in my career.

CM: What’s next for you, and Rough Haired Pointer?
FM: Well, I will be very much focusing on that question once this show is open! We will be doing a full run of ‘Marco Polo?’ by Matt Osman, a new show we developed last year. And for fans of ‘Just William’… look out!

‘The Diary Of A Nobody’ is on at King’s Head Theatre until 14 Feb. See this page here for more info and to book tickets.

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