The Theatreguide.London Review
Wooster in Perfect Nonsense
Duke of York's Theatre Autumn 2013 -
There's a particular genre of small-scale comedy – every Edinburgh Fringe has a couple – that I'm a total sucker for. A small cast of supposed amateurs take on an epic subject, their fumbling, quick changes, missed cues, prop and costume malfunctions and then, to their surprise as much as ours, do it - more-or-less success being the central (and to me, irresistible) joke.
This salute to the world of P G Wodehouse by Robert and David Goodale is a somewhat bigger-budget example of the genre, and it made me laugh a lot. But I should note that dedicated Wodehouse fans may find that the laughs, and the whole show, have relatively little to do with the Jeeves and Wooster they know.
Wodehouse's stories all involve the amiable upper-class idiot Bertie Wooster whose one talent lies in getting into extraordinarily complicated scrapes, from which his phlegmatic but infinitely resourceful valet Jeeves extricates him.
In this one, pieced together from bits of several of the novels, Bertie has to save a friend's romance, avoid getting trapped in one himself, foil a fascist and assist one of his many gorgon aunts in pilfering a prized knick-knack from the country house of a rival collector.
The Goodales' conceit is that sometime after the events Bertie is putting on this play to tell us the story, generating the added comic layers of Bertie's delight in being on a stage, Jeeves' cleverness in providing sets and costumes (not to mention keeping the story-teller on topic), and the increasingly frantic manner in which Jeeves and a valet friend play Everyone Else in the re-enactment.
And you may see a potential problem there. The fun of watching Jeeves playing an old man or a young girl – or, at one point, both in conversation with each other – has nothing to do with Wodehouse's Jeeves, and indeed violates the core dignity of the character.
Throughout the evening the Wodehouse humour – Bertie's dimness, Jeeves' imperturbable cleverness, the silly plot, the silly names (Gussie Fink-Nottle), even the occasional authentic-sounding Wodehousian line ('I took the news rather like one who, picking daisies on the railway line, catches the 4:05 in the small of the back') is battling with the three-guys-trying-to-put-on-a-show jokes, most of them clearly the inventions of farce-master director Sean Foley, and generally speaking it's the second group that win.
Only the most ardent Wodehouse fans could be bothered by this, I suspect, while the rest of us are happy to get so many occasions to laugh, whatever their source or nature.
Stephen Mangan may go a bit overboard with Bertie's idiocy – the character's a twit, not a buffoon – but he's in the right area and does capture the lad's charm and essential innocence.
Matthew Macfadyen is far too arch and smirking when he's being Jeeves, and nothing at all like Jeeves when he's being other characters, and it is best to forget the Wodehouse original entirely and just enjoy the silliness of his multiple role-playing, the same way in which you can appreciate Mark Hadfield's contributions in a half-dozen supporting roles.
Indeed, the ideal audience for this show might be people who have never heard of Jeeves, Wooster or Wodehouse and can just enjoy the non-stop farce placed before them. Put yourself in that frame of mind, and you'll have a ball.
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Review - Jeeves & Wooster - Duke of York's Theatre 2013