THEATRE / Ordinary people: Paul Taylor on Patricia Routledge in Mr and Mrs Nobody at Greenwich Theatre

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The Independent Culture
It's been reported that when Patricia Routledge went to Buckingham Palace recently to collect her OBE, the Queen, after investing her with the honour, enquired, 'Are you anything to do with television?' If true, this is a rich case of life imitating art; it's just the sort of comic social come-uppance that would be likely to befall those status-conscious characters that have become the actress's stock-in-trade, from Alan Bennett's Miss Schofield (the humble photo-copier attendant who has illusions of being the office lynchpin) to Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced, she'd like to believe, Bouquet) in Keeping Up Appearances. The great difference, of course, is that they would be incapable of seeing the joke.

It's thus to the manner born that Routledge assumes the role of Carrie, wife of Charles Pooter, the 1880s City clerk with the over-developed sense of his own consequence whose misadventures, while trying to become a byword for respectability in suburban Holloway, are recorded in The Diary of a Nobody. Ten years back, Keith Waterhouse hit on the excellent idea of 'ghosting' Mrs Pooter's Diary to give her account of the same period. His play, Mr and Mrs Nobody, now revived by Matthew Francis, is an interweaving of this version with the Grossmith brothers' original.

A white-faced scivvy scurries anxiously about the excellent set, dropping a tired curtsey to the audience every time Carrie refers to her grandiosely as 'my maid'. But the work is essentially a two-hander, a perky parallel text in which all the other folk (including Lupin Pooter, the uppish, worrying son) are either imagined characters or, at times, impersonated by the Pooters. Not an inherently dramatic set-up, it's true, but the piece draws its life, in part, from the couple's comic competition for our attention (Clive Swift's splendid Pooter regularly unable to get a word in edgeways as Routledge rattles on); and, in part, from the discrepancies between his complacent account of his humdrum life (with the famous bath-painting episode, the mishaps at the Lord Mayor's ball, and its aftermath, etc) and cleverer Carrie's slyly subversive gloss on it and her occasional withering asides.

Routledge times the waspishness of these marginal comments with her usual expertise, and you certainly feel that here is a woman whose nose would rarely be out of Lady Cartmell's Vadi-Mecum for the bijou household. But gurgling and clucking with fond laughter the while, she's in danger of making Carrie too roguish and easily lovable. She strikes deeper notes in those moments that Waterhouse, peering between the lines of the original version, has invented for the character - such as Carrie's secret yearning to return to Peckham, an ambition ironically dashed by the 'happy' ending, so that the line, 'On arriving home I found Carrie crying with joy', becomes yet another example of Pooter's short-sightedness and self-satisfaction.

Both actors grasp the main point: that through all the indignities, these figures must retain an essential dignity, being decent folk by their own lights. This well- staged, enjoyable production vindicates Francis's Christmas policy at Greenwich: that traditional but non-Christmassy pieces can provide the most festive fare.

Continues at Greenwich Theatre (Box office: 081-858 7755).

(Photograph omitted)