Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense continues to delight audiences at the Duke of York’s Theatre
The West End has recently seen spate of so-called ‘flops’ such as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical take on the Profumo affair, Steven Ward, and Tim Rice’s epic musical adaptation of From Here To Eternity. While they have been labeled flops because they ran for under six months, it is worth noting that most plays in the subsidised sector run for between four and six weeks. However, there is always the rare exception that bucks the trend and Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense has managed to do just that.
Opening at the Duke of York’s Theatre back in October 2013, the show was unanimously praised by audience and critics alike for its comic brilliance and faithful treatment of P.G. Wodehouse’s infamous characters. The original leading cast of Stephen Mangan and Matthew Mcfadyen also received great acclaim as the nice-but-dim Bertie Wooster and his dutiful butler Jeeves. It is rare for a play to run as long as it has, but what is even rarer is that the second cast lives up to the first.
The new gleeful double act of comedian-turned-actor Robert Webb and sketch show favourite Mark Heap take over these beloved characters with as much energy as they can possible muster and keep the high standard of the production that was gifted to them by Mangan and Mcfadyen.
Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense has been expertly adapted for the stage by Robert and David Goodale from the 1937 book The Code of the Woosters. The story uses the conceit that Bertie Wooster (Robert Webb) is presenting a show on the stage of a West End theatre about his recent bizarre expedition to Totleigh Towers in which he was tasked to steal an antique silver jug.
Bertie enlists the help of his ever-patient butler Jeeves (Mark Heap) to fill all the other supporting roles. This supposedly idyllic trip to the countryside takes a turn for the worse when Wooster is unknowingly called upon to play cupid between his host’s wet daughter Madeline Bassett and his equally posh friend Gussie Fink-Nottle. The stakes are raised when Wooster discovers that he must step up to the plate and marry Bassett if he can’t coerce the match with Fink-Nottle. Needless to say, much farcical hilarity ensues, leading to the climatic wedding of the season.
The clever framing device of a play within a play allows for all manner of inventive theatrical tricks and send-ups, masterfully created and executed by the sharp-minded Jeeves. It is this silent contract between the cast on stage and the audience, all too aware that they are watching a play being cobbled together in front of their very eyes, that gives the production a playful sense of collusion and conspiracy, milked for comic effect by Oliver Award-winning director Sean Foley.
Due to the vast range and sheer size of the characters in the play, it really requires the three-strong cast to be not just talented comics, but also versatile character actors. Happily, Mark Hadfield, Robert Webb and Mark Heap are of this stock. Webb takes the cheery toff that is Bertie Wooster and gives him a charming childlike quality, pulling out every daft and silly mannerism to the point of mad grinning. He effortlessly glides over the absurdity of the plot, shining like a bright beacon of ridiculousness.
Heap’s Jeeves is brilliantly droll and expressionless. However, when called upon to play the myriad of parts in the play within a play, he breaks out of this hard shell exterior and delivers a virtuoso flurry of characters, extending to one gloriously funny moment where he plays both male and female characters at the same time in a heated row to match any melodrama!
Hatfield is the glue that brings the show together. He has an arsenal of characters ready to unleash on the audience, from Wooster’s bovine Great Aunt to pieces of the furniture. Hatfield slots well into the new cast and keeps the continuity, having wowed the critics when the show first opened.
Sean Foley has made great use of the fact that it is almost utterly impossible to follow the play’s plot, taking every silly twist and turn to the height of preposterousness. The production rockets through each scene, never once pausing to catch its breath. Set designer Alice Power has helped things along with ingenious hidden exits and entrances that allow the cast to disappear and then, the next moment, pop up across the stage as another character; cue explosions of laughter from the audience.
There is no ignoring the fact that Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense is about as arty as a four-year-old’s finger-painting, but it never sets out to be a culturally rewarding night out. It is slapstick humour, punchy one-liners and ludicrous, chaotic fun.
Robert Webb and Mark Heap star in Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense until 29 June. From 30 June, James Lance and John Gordon Sinclair will take over as the final Jeeves and Wooster at the Duke of York’s Theatre.