Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, The Lowry, November 4-8 2014
What-ho! Welcome to this review of Perfect Nonsense, a play(full!) adaptation of PG Wodehouse’s third Jeeves and Wooster novel, The Code of the Woosters, that draws attention to itself as a manufactured entertainment for a large audience as seriously as anything Bertolt Brecht ever tried his hand at (but there the seriousness ends – pip!pip!).
The feature opens on a bare stage, with James Lance – an actor familiar to all from the likes of I’m Alan Partridge, Smack the Pony, Ab Fab, Black Mirror and quite literally fizzing loads of other things – in full Bertie Wooster mode, introducing proceedings by letting us know he’s hired the place and invited us all in to recreate some recent goings-on in his life. He treats us to a preposterous bit of back and forth in which he does the voices of himself, Bertie Wooster, and his man servant, Wooster (whose first name, if you’re interested, is Reginald, despite not being revealed in the novels for a whopping great 56 years) – and then realises that he can’t do the show alone and invites Wooster on stage for us all to see.
Now, Jeeves is supposed to be played by John Gordon Sinclair (for whom we’ve always retained a soft spot since Gregory’s Girl all those years ago – ah, the times we’ve shouted ‘Go do something your own age, like vandalise a phonebox’ at passing tramps) – only John Gordon Sinclair only went and did his back in. So we have Math Sams, understudy, stepping up to fill in. Now, if you’re a John Gordon Sinclair fan (as we are!), you might think: what a jolly old stinker! I expect that ruined the play before it bally well started eh, old chum? But actually it wasn’t long before we were so swept up in the old action that John Gordon Sinclair himself could have come along and tapped us on the shoulder saying, I say, I’m John Gordon Sinclair don’t you know! – and we would have shushed him with a DO YOU MIND?
There they are, Jeeves and Wooster, setting the scene, figuratively and literally, with Bertie bringing us up to speed with what we need to know and Jeeves, off stage, hammering and sawing in order to create a fireplace, and then a porch door, and then a revolving stage set powered by a bicycle and gradually we find ourselves immersed in the action, moving from Bertie’s front room to a jeweller’s shop to his friend Gussie Finknottle’s house, caught up in a narrative as twisty and turny as a twisty-turny thing (to paraphrase Baldrick). But we get ahead of ourselves because Perfect Nonsense isn’t a two man show – it’s a three man show and that third man is Robert Goodale (one of the two brothers who adapted the novel for the stage) who plays a manservant buddy of Jeeves known as Seppings. Seppings is brought on because he has a particular talent for doing other people – and so it isn’t long before Seppings is dressing up, as Bertie’s beloved Aunt Dahlia, as Roderick Spode, a sort of Hitlerian bully who grows in height as the play proceeds and ends up adorned in nine feet leather coats, propelled about the stage on a wheeled stool, among others.
Perfect Nonsense has quite the cast of characters, though, and Seppings can’t do everything and so Jeeves is forced to slip in and out of different characters too – delivering Gussie Finknottle as if he was a shortsighted Eric Morecambe, and Gussie’s love interest (or should that be love disinterest?) Madeline Bassett – as well as Madeline’s father Sir Watkyn, who hates Gussie and Wooster and the whole blooming set. And just as we’ve seen the stage set put together as part of the entertainment, so each of the characters are given to stepping out of character when the moment calls for it (Bertie commending Jeeves and Seppings at various points in the play when they’ve done a particularly good job recreating a certain part of the action). There are also some delicious moments, such as when, for example, Gussie is hiding under the bed and Jeeves comes in the door – and Bertie looks out at us, the audience, Laurel and Hardy-like, to incredulously hold the threads of the narrative together even as we sense he slaps Jeeves on the back for doing such a good job.
What about the plot, though, you might be asking if you managed to read as far as this? Well, in all truth, it’s ‘blink and you’ll lose all sense of what’s going on’ (there’s an antique cow creamer, various people who want it, odd bits of blackmail, treacherous plots, stolen police helmets, slapstick, farce, people falling out of windows, the kind of comedy that wouldn’t be out of place in Mr Magoo – and the kind of comedy that wouldn’t be out of place in Monty Python for that matter). But keeping up isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be – what! In fact, the point may come when you don’t keep up (an elderly gentlemen next to us in the audience fell asleep and snored mightily through much of the first half before retiring to the bar for the second half) – but we think you won’t mind all that much. Not for nothing did the adaptation bag a prestigious Lawrence Olivier award for Best New Comedy, which when you consider that it was first written almost a 100 years ago, is quite a feat.