Review: Jeeves and Wooster @ The Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Jeeves and Wooster is not great theatre by any stretch of the imagination but, frankly, it has no discernible pretensions in that direction. Indeed, much like the P.G. Wodehouse novels Sean Foley’s production is based upon, it is simply a moderately amusing, relentlessly banal, but expertly crafted few hours of farcical entertainment.

Robert Webb stars (and the term is particularly appropriate here; the phrase ‘bums on seats’ springs to mind) as the ever-loveable Bertie Wooster, complete with red-velvet jacket, silk pyjamas and the jargon-filled chatter of the stereotypical aristocracy. Accompanying him is his much-maligned ‘gentleman’s personal gentleman’, Jeeves (Jason Thorpe), whose dry intonation drips from his snooty nose, and Seppings (Christopher Ryan), the decrepit butler of Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia.

To Wooster’s waffling narration, the three of them act out his latest adventure, with Jeeves and Seppings playing a host of idiosyncratic supporting characters, including the pompous Sir Watkyn Bassett, the shrill Aunt Dahlia, the myopic Gussie Fink-Nottle, and the alluring Madeline Bassett. Broken-off engagements, priceless silver cow-creamers, and pilfered policeman’s helmets all feature, as Totleigh Towers is swept up in a whirlwind of cuff-linked confusion.

Slapstick comedy is undoubtedly the order of the day. Meta-theatrical set malfunctions, unexpected props, rapid costume changes, and repeatedly bumped heads abound. Commendable though the slickness of these designs is, their ceaselessness does tend to grate away at the audience’s sympathy. The charm of Wodehouse lies in his language and in the quintessentially, well, Wodehousian elegance of the dialogue, not in its physical potential, and the balance between the two is certainly off-kilter here.

Both Thorpe and Ryan display laudable versatility but Webb is hopelessly miscast as Wooster. In the same predicament his comedic contemporaries Ricky Gervais and Steve Coogan have encountered, Webb has fallen into the trap of portraying simply exaggerated or stifled versions of himself; there are recognisable glints aplenty. Ultimately, this does not detract from the humour of the piece, as much of the comedy stems from the aforementioned physical gags, but it does render his performance somewhat nondescript and, despite the energy he exudes in leaping around the stage, somewhat lazy.

Wodehouse once complained that his ‘light’ writing was looked down upon and sneered at by the intelligentsia of his day. Such an attitude is quite patently inappropriate. His masterful control of English is unrivalled and deserves to be recognised as such. One cannot escape the feeling that it was better left on the page, however. In translating it to the theatre, Wodehouse loses something fundamental. Some brilliantly funny lines are still present (“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, “Do trousers matter?”, “If he was not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled”), but without the chunks of narrative holding them together, they stand out as flashes of integrity amongst a sea of fluff.

That said, Jeeves and Wooster is still a rollicking good laugh, if not a particularly hard-hitting or biting comedy. Everyone, including the performers, has a good time and there is nothing wrong with that. To paraphrase the words of our eponymous fop Bertie upon discovering an unexpected toy duck in the soap-dish of his bath, “it contributes not a little to a new and happier frame of mind.”



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