Step back into a time where pranks were innocent, cars were lavish luxuries and being a fancier of antique silverware was a respectable past-time. Welcome to 1930’s England from the prolific mind of P.G. Wodehouse, based in the extravagant setting of the Theatre on the Bay, with its flowing draperies and grand theatre doors. Once you enter here, all troubles seem far away.
The delightfully precise richness and colour of P.G. Wodehouse’s novels inspire a deep loyalty in his fans, but can make the stories surprisingly difficult to transport into a new medium. This is especially true with the character of Bertie Wooster, who carries the dual function of an intelligent, succint narrator and a hapless buffoon – frequently at the same time. Yet Robert and David Goodale have produced a play that manages just that.
Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense – based on the 1938 novel The Code of the Woosters – has been set up as a play within a play. Bertie Wooster himself tells us that he did such a good job relating his latest tale of hi-jinks and chaos to his dear chums at the Drones Club that they have convinced him to stage it. And so he has. However he quickly hits the snag of all one-man shows: how to portray multiple characters in a complex plot. Step in Jeeves!
Sure enough Jeeves (Graham Hopkins) as poised as ever, brings out a drink, some music and half a stage set which he built last night. The slick, almost instantaneous, scene changes work with the difference in personalities shown by these experienced actors. While Jonathan Roxmouth as Bertie Wooster laughs like a demented lark, Graham Hopkins calmly turns a prop here, shifts the curtains there and suddenly there is a new set and new comedic confusion to unfold – and what might have been stagnant becomes brilliant. And of course once the master of slapstick, Robert Fridjhon, joins the fray as Seppings, then all bets are off as to what will happen next.
Trying to keep a handle on this mess of vastly talented players would take a dragon of a mother, but director Steven Stead has managed to gently corral them, showing off his skills from a long and varied past. Numerous devices are used to keep up with the speed of the plot, including Jeeves employing a curtain and lampshade to become the effervescent and ditzy Madeleine Basset. Picturing Graham Hopkins going from stoic butler to a skipping girl (still with manly bare legs) brings tears to the eyes even now.
All these ridiculous characters and convoluted sub plots make for an exhilarating ride through this tipsy daydream of a golden age of English countryside and aristocratic antics. All the audience can do is relax, enjoy and catch the policeman’s helmet. I could try to explain why newts are precious, how stealing a cow creamer is a trifling matter, or why black shorts are a sign of powerful resolve… but that would give too much away.
If you grew up on P.G. Wodehouse, great. If you didn’t, fantastic. That means you can experience this circus of a world for the first time. With the original West End production still running at the Duke of York’s Theatre and picking up this year’s Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, this is one play which will be a staple for many years to come. So roll up, grab that wine glass and jive to the tunes of yesteryear.
Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense is on at Theatre on the Bay from 17 October to 8 November 2014.