It’s been a long and bumpy road to the West End for P G Wodehouse’s most popular characters, with only the twice-tried Lloyd Webber/Ayckbourn musical version to show for it. The prickly Wodehouse estate had flat refused to countenance any further outings for the hapless toff and his resourceful butler, until self-confessed Wodehouse nuts The Goodale Brothers managed to butter them up by acting out the scenes between them. It must have been quite the sight, and it’s one that’s been transplanted pretty much wholesale into what is essentially a two-hander with one breathlessly role-swapping supporting character. It’s almost austerity West End, with a distinctly touring-show vibe to both the design and the performances, that’s just about smart enough and just about funny enough to make a virtue of its threadbare presentation.
The shtick is that Bertie’s putting on a play, a one-man retelling of the cow-creamer, newt-bothering shenanigans found in The Code of the Woosters, and naturally Jeeves has to lend a hand. As our favourite fop flaps about and rambles through his tale, Jeeves nonchalantly produces stage sets and props of increasing complexity and ancient butler Seppings is recruited to fill in the extra roles. It leaves oodles of space for meta-theatrical japes of all colours, including some surprisingly on the nose jibes at West End convention. There’s a bit with a bicycle that should have Trevor Nunn’s ears burning.
Stephen Mangan, who looks, as ever, like a dangerously deranged horse, is a passable Bertie, with some very funny physicality and plenty of prime mugging, but somehow fails to keep us on his side. Bertie is a twit, but he shouldn’t be a twat, and whether it’s because the current climate makes the moronic ruling classes seem less loveable than they might usually be, he’s often irritating rather than endearing.
Luckily he’s partnered with the brilliant Matthew Macfadyen, who not only rolls out a Jeeves which puts even Stephen (Fry) in the shade, but also throws himself utterly into his various turns as the booming Sir Watkyn Bassett, simpering Gussie Fink-Nottle and horrendous Stiffy Bing. The contrast between his nicely starched butler and screaming caricatures gets the evening’s best laughs, and though there’s some game support from Mark Hadfield as Seppings and exceedingly tall fascist Roderick Spode, Macfadyen comfortably romps home with the show.
There are plenty of scenes of genuine hilarity, gradually escalating in the tradition of the best farce, but farce needs a powerful engine to keep it rolling past the hour mark, and unfortunately Wodehouse’s episodic plotting can’t provide it. A good Wodehouse rollicks along like a disembowelled detective story, chaotic fragments raining down until the hand of chance (or of Jeeves) plucks them from the air and guides them into perfect alignment. There is a satisfaction to them, a completeness that belies their brevity and repetitive structuring. It’s a quality that is undone here by the constant breaking of the fourth wall, the flagging up of a crap bit of set or a cracking bit of stage business that becomes grating even before the interval. It’s always a bit depressing when the audience applauds the set, but here director Sean Foley seems to actively want them to. Wodehouse is a great literary juggler, but a modest one. This production’s Achilles’ heel is its tireless insistence on the cleverness of its juggle.