For many of us, the names Jeeves and Wooster will forever conjure up images of Fry and Laurie, so memorable were the then-comedians-now-superstars in the roles. The 15th anniversary production of Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s By Jeeves won’t do anything to change that, but it’s an entertaining piece in its own way.
The set-up is a clever one: on stage at a village hall revue, deprived of his beloved banjo – mainly beloved, of course, by him – Bertie Wooster finds himself in need of an act. On Jeeves’ suggestion, he recounts a typically convoluted tale of one of his misadventures, thick with mistaken identity, romance and narrowly averted disaster.
This play within a play is a useful device; it lends the show a cosiness and intimacy that is well-served by the compactness of the Landor. Praise should go to designer Morgan Large for the clever set, which perfectly conjures up the prerequisite atmosphere. With the cast spread out among the audience – and indeed, at one stage handing them sandwiches – you really do feel as if you are at a village fete. (In fact, so close was the performance I was actually kicked by one of the actors; so if you’re sitting in the front, keep your legs well tucked in).
The cast are generally very good. Kevin Trainor is suitably buffoonish and big hearted as Bertie, and if I was less convinced by Paul M Meston’s Jeeves, I think this was more to do with his slightly underwritten role and the unshakeable memory of Stephen Fry than any flaws in his performance. Other standouts were Charlotte Mills as Honoria Glossop, Jenni Maitland as Stiffy Byng and a perfectly cast Andrew Pepper as Gussie Fink-Nottle. Tim Hudson is funny as both as Sir Watkyn Bassett and the rather sweet friend Bertie enlists to play him; while David Menkin is suitably swaggering as the aggressive suitor throwing a spanner into the romantic works.
For a musical, it’s inordinately talky; which, given the standard if the music, is no bad thing. While the songs are fine and adequately performed, not one is memorable. They go beyond that in fact, and some are akin with just what one would expect from a village hall play; that said musical director Dave Rose and his live band do a splendid job of adding real vibrancy to the piece, and Andrew Wright’s lively new tap-inspired choreography literally keeps the cast on their toes. The story – reflecting the usual complex entanglements of PG Wodehouse’s novels – is farcical, forgettable and convoluted, but not necessarily any worse for that. Director Nick Bagnall keeps the show pacey and light, and the ensemble’s good humour buys a lot of goodwill; by the end of the evening you too may find you have fallen for the famous Wooster charm.