Repost: with One Stop Arts closing, I migrated this review here.
In Perfect Nonsense Matthew Macfadyen, Stephen Mangan and Mark Hadfield serve up – on a silver platter – an evening of dulcet-toned, dinner-jacketed fun. Robert and David Goodale provide a fresh and lively take on the much beloved Wodehouse characters Jeeves and Wooster. At the Duke of York’s Theatre.
Gentle reader, you may already realise how difficult a thing it must be to successfully adapt Wodehouse. Though a successful lyricist and playwright, his novels are largely narrative-driven, with dialogue taking a secondary role. This makes for a challenging translation into dramatic form. How impressive the feat, therefore, of not only doing this, but also assigning the full cavalcade of characters from The Code of the Woosters to a cast of just three.
The Goodale brothers have made strengths of these two potential Scylla and Charybdises by presenting us with a play-within-a-play which allows irreverent fop-about-town Bertie Wooster (Stephen Mangan) to simply address most of the expository detail to the audience directly, just as Bertie does in the majority of Jeeves and Wooster novels and short stories. Bertie’s valet Jeeves (Matthew Macfadyen) and his aunt’s valet Seppings (Mark Hadfield) take it upon themselves to concoct the remaining characters essential to the plot of Bertie’s tale. Between deft work on the part of all three performers, cleverly employed quick changes and dexterous set design, the production manages to give the impression of containing great multitudes of people.
Bertie’s play is about an engagement gone awry: not his own, but very nearly so. His friend Gussie Fink-Nottle is getting married to a girl named Madeline Bassett. Bertie finds Madeline rather too sentimental for his tastes but, owing to a regrettable concatenation of circumstances, she’s under the mistaken impression that he’s in love with her. She has accordingly stated that should she and Gussie break it off, Bertie would be her next choice. Unfortunately for Bertie a shadow soon falls over the rosy glow of Gussie and Madeline’s engagement, putting him squarely in the danger zone.
Concurrently, his Aunt Dahlia, for reasons as whimsical as they are complex, requests that Bertie steal a silver cow-shaped milk jug from a man called Sir Watkyn Bassett, father of the aforementioned Madeline. Meanwhile (just in case you were feeling there wasn’t yet enough complexity), Madeline’s cousin Stiffy Byng wants the cow creamer stolen so that her under-appreciated fiancé can become a hero by arranging its return and thus gain the consent of her uncle and guardian, our old friend Sir Watkyn. Hijinks, needless to say, ensue. These involve newts, a notebook full of insults, and an amateur dictator who runs an organisation called the Black Shorts.
Matthew Macfadyen, brilliantined within an inch of his life as Jeeves, gives a revelatory performance as a sexually aggressive Madeline Bassett, her usual dreamy delicacy taking on a decidedly hawkish tone here. Jeeves also takes on the roles of a pipe-clenching Sir Watkyn Bassett, the conniving Stiffy Byng, and beleaguered, bespectacled fiancé of Madeline Gussie, Fink-Nottle. A rapid-fire argument between Stiffy and her uncle Sir Watkyn gives rise to especial merriment among the crowd. Jeeves is also nominally responsible for the set and prop design in Bertie’s play, including a charming conceit where he powers the revolving stage by bicycle.
Stephen Mangan slips confidently into the role of Bertie Wooster like a perfectly cut dinner jacket, employing a wide gormless smile to sublime effect. He’s the glue that holds it all together, a touchstone of relative normality among the rapid comings and goings of the myriad characters enacted by Macfadyen and Hadfield. Bertie, not being the brightest piece of silver in the display case, is naturally rather clumsy. Mangan feigns this with a charm and effectiveness that accounts for much of the show’s success.
As the valet Seppings, Mark Hadfield takes on the forthright Aunt Dahlia, rotund defender of the village Constable Oates, and amateur dictator and full-time scourge of foppish young men Sir Roderick Spode, among other roles. Seppings makes joyous and full use of a little Foley station that he wheels on at various intervals to provide atmosphere. Macfadyen’s quintessentially Jeevesian glance at Hadfield when he gets above himself and creates the sound of a railway crossing complete with freight train, says everything we need to know about Jeeves.
The intensely physical nature of all three performances requires a keen sense of timing, with direction by Sean Foley clearly having an impact in this area. Alice Power’s set and costume design are a particularly strong feature of the production, too: whimsical, witty and growing ever more complex as the show progresses.
The warm reception this production receives from the audience matches the warmth and affection shown to the source material by the creative team in putting this production together. Would I see this production again? By Jeeves, I think I would.