By Jeeves [Landor Theatre]

By Jeeves
An ‘almost entirely new musical’ based on the stories by P. G. Wodehouse, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book and lyrics by Alan Ayckbourn

Harold ‘Stinker’ Pinker – Brendan Cull
Bingo Little – Owain Rhys Davies
Madeleine Bassett – Helen George
Sir Watkyn Bassett – Tim Hudson
Stiffy Byng – Jenni Maitland
Cyrus Budge III – David Menkin
Jeeves – Paul M. Meston
Honoria Glossop – Charlotte Mills
Gussie Fink-Nottle – Andrew Pepper
Bertram Wooster – Kevin Trainor

The Band: David Rose (piano & Musical Director); Dan Czwartos (flute / clarinet / saxophone); Sandy Suchodolski (double bass); Nicky Caulfield (percussion)

Nick Bagnall – Director
Andrew Wright – Choreographer
Morgan Large – Designer
Mike Robertson – Lighting Designer
Matt Mackenzie – Sound Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 8 February, 2011
Venue: Landor Theatre, Clapham, London SW9

P. G. Wodehouse was a master storyteller, witty lyricist and all-round good egg who created his own world in the tales of Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves. The servant’s name lives on in many ways apart from Wodehouse’s books. As well as being the all-purpose, quintessential title for any gentleman’s gentleman, there is a superior-dry cleaning company of that name and also an Internet search-engine for which you just “Ask Jeeves!” The Jeeves stories are as daffy as they come, as Wodehouse re-invented life in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s to suit the sort of upper-class twits he was writing about. The only character who is not a twit is Jeeves himself who generally does have the answer to everything, or can manage to get young Wooster out of his many silly scrapes.

The long-running television series with, firstly, Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price in “The World of Wooster” and later Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in “Jeeves and Wooster” managed to establish Wodehouse’s world for a television audience. There were also radio adaptations in the 1970s with Michael Hordern and Richard Briers, and more recently with Andrew Sachs and Marcus Brigstocke. Although the books are always more hilarious when read, the dramatisations worked well enough. Staging them for the theatre, however, seems to be a problem.

In 1975 Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn (Tim Rice, Lloyd Webber’s usual lyricist at the time, was unavailable) tried to capture the essence of Wodehouse in the musical “Jeeves“, with David Hemmings as Bertie and Michael Aldridge as Jeeves. It opened at Her Majesty’s theatre in London but closed after 38 performances. It was arguably the biggest (only?) flop in both Lloyd Webber and Ayckbourn’s careers. Twenty-one years later they had another go, scaling the show down, cutting the cast from twenty-two to ten, ditching most of the original songs (only three survived), re-writing the book and providing new songs. Opening at Ayckbourn’s theatre, the Stephen Joseph in Scarborough, the new show, “By Jeeves“, proved to be popular and transferred to the Duke of York’s theatre in London with Steven Pacey and Malcolm Sinclair. The current production at the Landor is the first London revival, although the show had previously toured the UK and played in Australia, New Zealand and the USA.

The setting is the Little Wattam Parish Hall where the locals are putting on their own show, “Banjo Boy” which is to be presented by Bertram Wooster. Lloyd Webber and Ayckbourn tried to create an authentically amateur dramatic company with its parochial ways and a pompous local vicar introducing the show and the various backstage workers in a Victoria Wood “Acorn Antiques” kind of fashion, although others have done it better. A professional company called Entertainment Machine used to run a so-called ‘amateur’ theatrical group purporting to be the Farndale Avenue Townswomen’s Guild, which caught the spirit of these things precisely. Its all-female version of “The Mikado” was, as they say, an absolute hoot.

Sadly for Bertie, “Banjo Boy” cannot go ahead because his banjo has not arrived from the suppliers on the Kent border. What to do? Well, suggests Jeeves, why not entertain the audience with stories of Bertie and his chums and the awkward jams they get into? This allows them to provide some riotous antics involving Bingo Little, Madeleine Bassett, Stiffy Byng, Honoria Glossop and, worst of all, Gussie Fink-Nottle, the cause of all the trouble because he’s fallen in love with the wrong girl. With its many farcical mistaken identities it all sounds hilarious but in fact it becomes rather tiresome and the first act drags on endlessly. Act Two is better and shorter and has some livelier songs but by then we have been entertained enough and on the whole the evening is pretty much lost.

The songs that stand out are ‘Travelling hopefully’, ‘That nearly was us’, ‘When love arrives’, ‘Banjo boy’ and the title song, ‘By Jeeves’, which is written in the style of a Cole Porter ‘list’ number. The four musicians cope well with the scaled-down arrangements and the cast is certainly energetic. Nick Bagnall’s direction and Andrew Wright’s choreography add a deal of panache. Kevin Trainor as Bertie is very good but doesn’t have that awful vacuity that is the essence of a true Wooster brain. Paul M. Meston is a fine and sturdy Jeeves, although seems not to be the truly commanding figure that the manservant should be. But then the show is not really about him because he has relatively little to do. The rest of the cast creates a company of silly asses, and appears to be having much more fun than the audience is.

  • By Jeeves is at Landor Theatre, 70 Landor Road, London SW9 until Saturday 5 March 2011
  • Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m.; matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2.30
  • Tickets bookable on 020 7737 7276
  • Landor Theatre

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