By Jeeves

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Book and Lyrics by Alan Ayckbourn, based on the Jeeves stories by P. G. Wodehouse
Jordan Productions Ltd. in association with Eastbourne Theatres and by arrangement with the Really Useful Group Ltd.
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring
(2007)

Production photo

It was in 1974 that Ayckbourn and Lloyd Webber were taken to Wodehouse’s home in Long Island to meet the author and play him some highlights from their new show. Wodehouse (affectionately known as ‘Plum’) had been a prolific writer of plays and musical comedies, as well as novels, but at age ninety three he was rather more interested in his tea. However it was assumed that he approved and Ayckbourn has written a very entertaining account of this meeting in the programme notes.

The musical that has evolved from the Jeeves and Wooster stories of the nineteen thirties is a deceptively simple piece of nonsense which runs with highly polished precision throughout, despite trying to convince us that it is a group of amateurs putting on a show in the local village church hall to raise money for the repair of the church steeple.

The cast mingle with the audience as they arrive to see their show, all suitably attired in thirties style summer outfits. Costumes by Julie Godfrey are splendid, as is the very solid looking panelled set – no expense spared!

Stephen Carlile arrives in the shape of a very inept vicar, rushing around welcoming everyone before taking to the stage to announce (with the help of copious notes) the star turn Bertie Wooster who will be playing his banjo, only the banjo seems to have gone missing – could the disapproving butler Jeeves have had something to do with this? Jeeves is well played by Jeffrey Holland, manipulating his master (for the good of all) in a solemn and lugubrious manner but unable to resist a slight twinkle in the eye.

No banjo to hand so how to proceed with the entertainment? Why not enact an account of one of the amusing and improbable episodes in Wooster’s life, situations from which his resourceful butler cleverly manages to extricate him? Jeeves’ suggestion of course, and the show proceeds with narrative addressed to the audience as each scene unfolds.

Robin Armstrong is particularly well cast as the well-off scatterbrained Bertie Wooster, with his very flexible body adding to the comedy in the song and dance routines, and his risky acrobatics with a ladder and a window put me in mind of the silent movie star Buster Keaton.

The characters get very mixed as they, for various reasons, pretend to be somone else, to the utter confusion of American Cyrus Budge III (Junior) – a big, bluff, hearty Nicolas Colicos – trying hard to understand the incomprensible English aristocracy. Laura Checkley gives a very strong performance (literally) as the hale and hearty “jolly hockey sticks” character Honoria Glossop, beloved by Alan Ruscoe’s Gussie Fink-Nottle.

Witty and well-paced direction by Chris Gordon keeps the action moving swifty along, and the excellent and hard working cast keep the fun and frolics constant.

Some strange and bizarre (but very funny) props and scenery appear to illustrate each scene – it’s amazing what this village has to hand – and in the finale they all appear as characters from Over the Rainbow, costumes for the forthcoming pantomine no doubt.

The music is not particularly memorable, but it is enjoyably tuneful and melodic, with terrific orchestration by David Cullen and superbly played (under the direction of Robert Cousins) by a six-piece band, visible on stage in the church transcept.

A highly professional and very well executed bit of frivolity, and very enjoyable.

Touring to Oxford and Malvern

Reviewer: Sheila Connor