Wodehouse created Jeeves and Wooster in 1915, and he continued to set them in short stories and novels until their final appearance in 1974.
Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie appeared as the characters in a television series, and the name “Jeeves” slipped into the vernacular.
The appeal of Perfect Nonsense is that the numerous character roles are played by only three performers. In this touring British production they are all experienced English actors: Matthew Carter is energetic and charismatic as Wooster, Joseph Chance is solid and dependable as Jeeves, and Robert Goodale is gruff and grovelling as the butler Seppings.
Perfect Nonsense begins with Wooster in an armchair chatting with the audience and deciding to relate an anecdote through the medium of the theatre. The two butlers bring on pieces of set, gradually building a typical drawing-room comedy box set – much to Wooster’s amazement, but not ours.
An essential difficulty with this play, no matter how hard the actors work, is that the telling of a convoluted tale of Wooster needing to find a silver cow-creamer or to avoid romantic entanglements is of little interest. The fun of the play is in two of the actors playing multiple roles with quick costume and voice changes: inevitably, there are deliberate wardrobe malfunctions and situations requiring impossible entrances.
Some of the characterisations are fun, such as Chance playing both Sir Watkin Bassett and Stephanie (“Stiffy”) Byng at the same time – however, even this moment seems to go on too long and the dialogue and comic business are not enough to sustain it. Goodale plays Roderick Spode, the supposed enormously tall character with an uncanny resemblance to Hitler, but this is a repeated gag which, instead of becoming funnier, gets a little tiresome.
The portrayal of Madeline Bassett with the seemingly improvised use of a curtain and lampshade has comic potential, but when the other character’s suit is very visible it is difficult to be drawn into the suspension of disbelief or the comedy. A man appearing in female clothing is no longer automatically funny, and something clever or inventive has to be done with the characters that surprises or delights us.
Perfect Nonsense is a show that requires an absolutely slick performance and the night I saw it, the timing seemed to be astray; some audience members were laughing but it was at very twee, predictable gags that belong to a bygone era.
The actors are talented and hard-working but, despite their efforts, the story is still of Jeeves and Wooster who, regardless of their antics, adventures, conundrums and difficulties, belong to the past and have little lasting impact.
Jeeves and Wooster: Perfect Nonsense, presented by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, is playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre until September 3.
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