Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense

The Goodale brothers adapted from P G Woodouse
Mark Goucher and Mark Rubinstein
Salisbury Playhouse

Of course, even if we’re not familiar with the books, we know Jeeves and Wooster from the television series, which ran from 1990-1993 on ITV with Stephen Fry as the imperturbable and erudite butler Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as his cheerfully gormless master. It was hugely popular and won several awards.

This stage version, adapted from Wodehouse’s original material by the Goodale brothers, Robert and David, and directed by Sean Foley, has already won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy and played to audiences in South Africa, with plans to open in France, America and Australia.

The play begins with Bertie relaxed in an armchair and establishing his relationship with the audience. No false references to the local area, as in pantomime, but an understanding that we, the audience, are already friends with this amiable character. After all, "Scratch Bertie Wooster and you will find a Boy Scout," Seppings, Aunt Agatha’s butler, will later say. And we agree. When, a little later on, a policeman’s helmet needs a hiding place, what better one could you find than in the safe hands of a front row member of the audience?

The story, as far as it matters, involves the theft of a policeman’s helmet, the disappearance of an 18th century silver cow creamer (posh milk jug in the shape of a cow) and some complex romantic entanglements, particularly those involving Madeline Basset, from whom Bertie is desperate to escape.

We know we’re in real bonkers territory firstly when the fire in Bertie’s flat, which consists of some rather unconvincing cardboard flames, fails to respond to ineffectual poking, and this sets the mood for the rest of the play, because we never actually stop laughing. Even the occasional prolonged pause just gives rise to more hilarity.

So many things contribute to the success of Perfect Nonsense, such as Alice Power’s ingenious, ever-changing set, rearranged on stage by the actors themselves and, if something goes slightly wrong, whether deliberately or otherwise, just adding to the fun.

Who could fail to love aunt Agatha, with her flaming hair and dress, tearing round the stage in all directions and answering the telephone ‘as if shouting across a ploughed field in a high wind,’? Or the diminutive Roderick Spode who periodically appears through a doorway, "6ft 8' if he’s an inch," needing an elaborate change of costume every time he does so, together with the help of a footstool? Or the scene in which exaggeratedly winsome Madeline Basset argues with her father, both parts being played by one actor wearing half a suit and half a dress?

And what about that wonderful scene in which the assembled chassis, steering wheel and windscreen which makes up Bertie’s and Jeeves’s car is held up at the level crossing?

But the most amazing thing about this, absolutely unmissable, production isn’t actually revealed until the curtain call. We’ve been entertained by all these different characters and enjoyed their always uproariously funny and distinct personalities. Yet it’s a fact that this collection of varied characters is actually brought to life by just—you have to believe it—three superb actors who also manage miraculously instant costume changes.

Jason Thorpe, Ed Hancock and Christopher Ryan, you were marvellous.

And P G Wodehouse would surely have been delighted, as we all were, by this equally wonderful production.

Reviewer: Anne Hill