Thursday, 7 November 2013

Theatre review: Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense

Following regional tours, a couple of high-profile comedies are landing in the West End in the run-up to Christmas, and first up are a duo as quintessentially English as the word "quintessentially." I can only take P.G. Wodehouse in small doses, but those doses can be pretty inspired, and his most famous creations are Jeeves and Wooster. Based on various Wodehouse stories, the Goodale Brothers' Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense sees upper-class twit Bertie Wooster (Stephen Mangan) attempt a one-man show in which he intends to regale the audience with one of his ludicrous misadventures. His determination to go it alone barely lasts a couple of minutes before he needs his trusty valet Jeeves (Matthew Macfadyen) to bail him out as usual. From keeping the story on track, to playing supporting characters and even building the set, Jeeves has to run the show.

But this isn't the double act it seems to be - he may be invisible in the show's publicity (not even meriting a headshot next to his name on the website) but Mark Hadfield often steals the show as elderly butler Seppings, whose wheeze and stoop vanish when he bounds about impersonating other characters. While Macfadyen takes on a grumpy, pipe-smoking old judge, a foppish newt-enthusiast and a pair of flirty young ladies, Hadfield complements him with the obligatory fearsome aunt, a bumbling policeman and an improbably tall fascist who grows a couple of inches with every appearance.

Mangan's Wooster grins benignly through all of this frantic scene and costume-changing, confident that somehow he's the one doing most of the work. As the title admits, the plot is nonsense - a lot of running around a cow-shaped butter dish, dodging scary old men and accidental proposals of marriage. But it's done with just the right spirit of silliness to make it work. I was a bit concerned that Perfect Nonsense might be little more than a cynical money-spinner using familiar characters - the small cast and deliberately lo-fi staging making it a cheap show that could have a healthy run in the style of past hits like The Play What I Wrote and the still-running The 39 Steps.

In fact one of the stars of The Play What I Wrote, Sean Foley, is the director here, and clearly brings some of that show's inventiveness and amiable spirit to this latest bit of West End silliness - Hadfield's unsung third performer even mirroring the role Toby Jones played opposite the Morecambe and Wise characters. Mangan's face is worth a dozen punchlines in itself, but there's also a real pleasure in seeing Macfadyen, an actor who's sometimes come across as taking himself a bit seriously, use that po-face to good comic effect in a number of ridiculous situations. There were a few moments when Perfect Nonsense's onslaught of farce lost some of its shine for me, but for the most part this is a hugely successful evening of no-frills comedy.

Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense by the Goodale Brothers, based on stories by P.G. Wodehouse, is booking until the 8th of March at the Duke of York's Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

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