“Do what to a what?”
The whole Jeeves and Wooster thing has passed me by in life – I’ve never seen the TV show or read PG Wodehouse’s stories, nor ever felt the need to catch up. But I do like me some Matthew Macfadyen and so the lure of seeing him onstage – after an absence of three years – meant that a trip to the unwieldly titled Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense was in order. The play was adapted by Robert and David Goodale and is directed by Sean Foley, who brings a strenuous theatricality to the whole affair.
The conceit sees Stephen Mangan’s toff Wooster intending to put on a one-man show but soon finding that he needs the assistance of his trusty manservant Jeeves, played by Macfadyen, who helps him relay the tales of Wooster’s adventures by stage-managing the whole affair and portraying any number of supporting players. Thus we get a dizzying whirl of characters, locations and scenarios all conjured from Jeeves’ resourcefulness but not content with the The 39 Steps-style carousing, there’s possibly the hugest amount of arch nudge-nudge-wink-wink business ever seen on a London stage.
Some may really appreciate it, but I found it to be most alienating. Drama school buddies of old, Macfadyen and Mangan work hard but are constantly fighting a losing battle against Foley’s sustained emphasis on the farce of the piece, which turns the tone into something perilously close to smug. And though you’d be hard-pressed to tell from the title, or the publicity, this is actually a three-man show – Mark Hadfield’s ageing butler Seppings is a frequently scene-stealing performance who also multi-roles his way through the story, making a mockery of his unheralded presence in the play.
My relationship with farce has always been difficult but it isn’t clear-cut, a lot of farcing about leaves me cold but I loved Noises Off and the soon-to-be-West-End-bound The Duck House. But whatever magic ingredient they had – I suspect it is the charming heart at their very centre – it is sorely missing here and no amount of arched eyebrows can convince me otherwise.