Thursday, 17 July 2014

Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense

What: Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense dir. Sean Foley (Duke of York’s Theatre, London; 10th Oct 2013 – 20th Sept 2014)

When: Wednesday 16th July 2014

Where: Duke of York’s Theatre, London

Why: A free ticket – many thanks to Official Theatre!

How: A little warm around the edges from the inklings of a heatwave and a craftily imbibed pre-show Sol

Never in my life have I been able to turn down something free. So when Official Theatre got in touch with a comp, I snatched it up like P.G. Wodehouse snatching up a comically toffy name.

Perfect Nonsense is an apt name for the play, if we’re taking ‘perfect’ to mean, archaically, ‘completely formed, finished, or made; completely prepared and made ready’.[1] Trussed up and finished off like Bertie Wooster in a buttoned waistcoat, this bouncy, amiable pseudo-romp is well directed, well rehearsed, and well, a little too ‘prepared’. Like Bertie, it’s a bit forced.

The premise is that Bertie Wooster, affable chap and all-round nice fellow, wants to put on a performance of an eventful day in which his Aunt Dahlia forcibly enlisted his help in the retrieval of a silver cow creamer, fearfully fallen into the possession of the inimitable Sir Watykn Basset. The play abounds with meta-theatrical and playful nods to its own artificiality, the limitations of doubling providing a lot of the laughs, Bertie’s goofy satisfaction at his own narrative charming. Self-consciously a dramatic farce, it is undeniably fun. It is not, however, as the OED might argue, perfect in the sense of being ‘in a state of complete excellence; free from any imperfection or defect of quality’.[2] It lacks a certain pizzazz, a certain West End kapow. Perhaps this was due to the mid-week slump, where several seats remained unfilled, punters soaking up cider in pubs and parks.

Or perhaps this is down to its small cast. A three-hander of middle-age and upward males –accomplished in their mimicking abilities, admirable for their stamina, generally comfortable in their roles – is not always going to be a recipe for fireworks (and quite right too – we can’t have another roof falling down now, can we?). Their onstage chemistry, camaraderie and mutual respect is clear, and the venue is a suitably intimate one, but, regardless, the space never felt fully utilised, fully filled. I fear when the play goes on tour at the end of September it may struggle in some of the larger venues on its route.

And that's showbiz, kid.
(Photo from

The play begins with Bertie addressing his audience, explaining how he will be treading the boards with the help of his faithful valet Jeeves and his Aunt Dahlia’s well-worn butler Seppings filling all other parts. Played too much on one level, this opening interaction didn’t grab me, up in the Royal Circle – it was a little too wide-eyed and caricatured to draw that much interest; perhaps closer to the stage it would have been magical, and perhaps for a tourist it would have been charmingly British. But this opening interaction left me a little suspicious of whether the next two and a half hours were going to drive me a little mad.

As it turns out, they didn’t at all. I need to remember (perhaps write on a Post-it and stick to my notebook) that I never, ever enjoy the first ten to fifteen minutes of a show, even one I end up raving about later. I need my settling time. I’m probably thinking about how hungry I am (probably fairly), how full I am (quite likely also fairly), how close I am to needing a toilet break (generally about half a cup of tea away), to properly relax into enjoying something. A little restless, and a bit of a fidget, those teething moments are always hard. As my mind wandered in this direction, I resolved to settle back and enjoy from that moment onwards.

And the truth is, James Lance’s Bertie Wooster really is hugely likeable. Completely two-dimensional, but justifiably so, as this is a completely two-dimensional piece, entertainment at its purest, not purporting to be anything else. His exaggerated facial expressions are a masterclass in Panto 101, and his genuine glee at almost everything is infectious. He’s a puppy you really want to have around for Christmas, but maybe by Boxing Day he’ll find himself at Battersea with a bow around his neck. He does, rather oddly but wonderfully, an excellent impression of a newt, akin to a lizard impersonation an ex-boyfriend would occasionally pull out (this is, sadly, not a euphemism). I spent most of the play thinking he had played spotty Scottish teen Gregory in the 80s classic Gregory’s Girl, and could just not see the resemblance. This is because, it turns out, I had misread Wikipedia, and it was in fact his co-star, John Gordon Sinclair, who had debuted as the eponymous Hibernian adolescent (the name should have given it away really. Yeesh, why didn’t his parents just name him Scotty McHaggis-DeepFriedMarsBar)[3].

Sinclair’s Jeeves was a little disappointing. He has the potential to be a real foil to the flighty Bertie, but he seemed a little wearied, opaque without being interestingly opaque. As the play hinges on his mysteriously-gained information on Bertie’s nemesis, Jeeves’ pivotal role was a little wooden. Sinclair didn’t seem entirely comfortable with his top billing, and seemed to become more flustered as Jeeves as the play went on. I wonder if this is because he has clearly put a lot himself into his other characters: the spot-on pipe-smoking, insult-barking Sir Watkyn, his flouncy and highly-sexed daughter, Madeleine Basset (whose snake-like tongue set me quite a-fluster), her bumbling, pig-faced fiancé, newt-obsessed, Gussy Fink-Nottle, and the manipulative and seductive Stiffy Byng. His absolute star turn, however, is in one of the play’s concluding scenes, where he simultaneously takes the parts of Sir Watkyn and his niece Stiffy. A consummate feat of costume design (his left side dolled up in Stiffy’s garish pinky purple shiny skirt suit, his right side clad in Sir Watkyn’s perfect green army-major-on-golfing-holiday suit), his quick changes, comic timing and great sense of stage irony well deserved the round of applause that followed him off.

The star of the show, however, was co-creator Robert Goodale. An adorable aging cart horse of a Seppings, my heart leapt out for this overburdened and humble old man. Goodale’s lightly Scottish butler Butterfields had a deliciously wrinkly nose and, despite the many, many times the joke was used, his increasing perplexity and mild aggressiveness in his ‘Thank You’ battle with Bertie had me in stitches every time. His Inspector Oats, a Cockney policeman who Bertie describes as a bit ‘ooh ar ooh ar’,[4] is an amusing interlude of disgruntled fattery. His Hitler-haired fascist Roderick Spode was actually a little intimidating, a Rottweiler in a Doberman suit – as Bertie’s description lists Spode as six, eight, maybe nine feet tall, the diminutive Goodale steps up onto footstalls and staging until eventually investing in a ginormous suit on wheels. The disparity between his gnashy little nasty face, his repeated threats to smoosh Bertie into ‘jellaaaaaaay, Wooster, jellaaaaaaay’, and his limp lolloping limbs is a great piece of physical comedy. His pièce de resistance, however, is as the wonderfully orange-clad Aunt Dahlia, perhaps the wrtiers’ homage to the ‘coven of aunts’ with whom Wodehouse himself spent an unhappily large part of his childhood. As flamboyant as her flowery namesake, a few petals away from being a full on Dame Edna, Aunt Dahlia is, to the play and Goodale’s credit, no pantomime dame, no token drag act, but a hilariously crafted and fully fleshed battle-axe who lights up the room. Goodale’s own double scene, in which Aunt Dahlia fights Roderick Spode, is a superbly executed tussle, the best use of stage space in the production, and a testament to the variety of vocal talents that Jeeves recommendeds Seppings for at the beginning of the play.

The set is clever: a revolving stage and multi-purpose scenery meant that the play was as smooth as one of Bertie’s martinis. Set pieces are fantastically executed: the slow-mo falling of the prized silver cow creamer; Bertie’s bubbly bath-time, complete with rubber duck; Sepping’s level crossing. A nice touch is the use of sandbags and the electricity-producing bike (powering the revolving stage) that add an old-school theatre feel to the staging. Even the curtain, a bold red with gold fringe, was, apparently, a design element. I know this, because a man in front of us refused to put his phone away before curtain up, determined to have a photo of the stage to Whatsapp to some poor friend or lover. As a steward, and then his manager, told the fine fellow that he was infringing the show’s copyright by replicating the curtain, he repeatedly said ‘But the stage is EMPTY’ in an increasingly irritating and aggressive tone until he was told if he carried on being difficult he’d be asked to leave. A little advice, mate: save your breath, and the embarrassment of your elderly companions, and just Google it. Look, here it is:

The offending drape

The show ends with a hilarious and toe-tapping take on the Charleston, an unexpected jig of a treat which left me beaming. Perfect Nonsense really does exactly what it says on the tin. It is, as the OED would say, a piece ‘of which every part is enjoyable’.[5] Not only that, but it leaves you realizing your innate human desire to possess a cow creamer, so you too can enjoy milk streaming from the open mouth of a precious metal bovine.

[1] Perfect, adj 3a. Because why not start your blog post with a few sprinklings of the OED, eh?
[2] Perfect, adj 1b, ibid. There I go again!
[3] Sorry, Scotland – please feel free to leave the UK.
[4] I was the only person I heard laugh at this in the audience. #selfidentification