Jeeves and Wooster
in Perfect Nonsense
Play by The Goodale Brothers,
adapted from Code of The Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse
Directed by Sean Foley
Theatre Royal Brighton (pre-London)
26th October 2013 matinee
Stephen Mangan as Bertie Wooster
Matthew MacFadyen as Jeeves
Mark Hadfield as Seppings
Lose preconceptions. Forget drawing rooms, beautiful 1920s furniture and French windows. Really, really forget Fry and Laurie in the TV series altogether. We opted for this, pre-London run because of the combination of Stephen Mangan (see Birthday review plus Episodes is my favourite sitcom in the last ten years) and director Sean Foley (see reviews of A Mad World My Masters and The Ladykillers). I’ve watched quite a few of the Fry & Laurie Jeeves and Wooster because they happened to be on TV, but never made a special effort to do so, nor ever timer-recorded any. I’m also not an apologist for Wodehouse, nor more than a casual reader, and that was years ago. I’m not sure either whether the title is Jeeves and Wooster or Perfect Nonsense as the latter is always written in small type.
This is a three man play. Let’s also try and get over a ticket price more than three times that of Richard II at the RSC in Stratford, just a couple of days earlier with a cast of twenty plus; and starring David Tennant. It was outrageously expensive for Jeeves and Wooster for our circle seats, aggravated by Brighton’s war on parking, so bad that I’d avoid any Brighton run in future if a play is anywhere else at all. But OK, we’re discussing subsidised theatre (RSC) versus (very) commercial theatre. We opted for expensive circle seats because the stalls have little or no rake, and last time my companion, who is five foot, could barely see anything. Early on, there is a fire in a grate, represented by a deliberately naff piece of red cloth, and when it appears Stephen Mangan as Bertie Wooster and says “They’re getting their money’s worth!” with a knowing look to the audience. And we hoped all three actors get a splendid payday. They thoroughly deserve it, because they work their socks off. And the theatre was full.
It’s a brilliant concept. It starts with a bare stage, with a chair. The sides of the theatre with pulleys to lower backdrops are on view (in fact it’s all part of the set, not the actual theatre wall). Bertie Wooster is solo. He wants to tell us a story, but being an ass, he keeps messing it up. He summons Jeeves to help him. Then his aunt’s butler, Seppings, to help as well. So Jeeves and Seppings have to act out all the characters in the story, both male and female. Bertie Wooster remains Bertie throughout, and congratulates his assistants when they do something well, or corrects them when (say) hastily applied facial hair falls out of place. There are a lot of double takes as Jeeves or Seppings realize they now have to be in a different role and costume and hair. So we have actors playing Jeeves and Seppings, who in turn are acting other roles, in an Art of Coarse Acting style.
Stephen Mangan, as narrator, is our eyes, so can never leave stage, nor do any scenes occur without his involvement. He is “on” for the entire play. His gleaming teeth and manic smile are vital for the part, and his infectious laugh runs right through his narration of his own story. He can also step outside the “play within a play” to interact with the audience, but does so as Bertie Wooster. Messrs MacFayden and Hatfield have to do many many parts with incredibly rapid costume changes, and surprise entrances, so much so that the stage managers and their dressers deserve an award. Several are literally ‘unbelievable.’ Bertie Wooster has a lot of those too as he has to keep up with the change of scenes. I’m still trying to work out how they did them. The height is when MacFadyen as Jeeves has to play a man and a woman simultaneously, wearing two costumes split down the middle. I have seen this done before, but with “the woman” in a floor length dress. Here he does it in a calf length dress with a high-heeled shoe on one side, and does the switch from “all male” to one side male / one female in a few seconds without ever letting go of a door jamb so one hand is always in view of the audience as half of him is changed just out of sight.
The set? I’m avoiding plot spoilers as the way the set is gradually built as the play progresses is central to the concept, and extracted guffaws again and again. Starting with a bare stage, Jeeves adds a fireplace, then bit by bit, as needed, the set gets assembled. Pictures change. The fireplace changes. A laugh every time. We don’t see the revolving stage used till the second half, but when we do it’s apparently powered by Jeeves or Seppings leaping onto a tethered pushbike and pedalling away.
The whole is a triumph of play-within-play business and theatrical devices. A lot is pantomime-derived … but because it’s a play that’s not working (because it’s impossible), much funnier. An example is the drive down to the country in a hastily assembled car. Often done in pantomime, but never this well. I’m stopping myself explaining how because it would kill several very funny things, but we have Seppings with a table of sound effects standing by, adding them in.
The precision timing throughout must have required very long rehearsals, not least for sound and lights which have to match the action, and even in the first week, they’re absolutely tight on timing. It’s fabulous. It requires so much split second timing that they have no chance of an understudy if ever one of them can’t do a show. It must be exhausting for the cast, and to a degree is quite exhausting to watch as it is relentlessly hilarious. It got deserved massive applause. We felt it unfair that Mark Hadfield got lower billing in smaller type as all three work equally non-stop, but I guess it is “Jeeves and Wooster” so that justifies pulling out the two for publicity.
They worked so hard and were such a brilliant trio, that our lingering mean-spirited pricing resentment was dispelled. I wouldn’t have missed this one.
A Google image search revealed rehearsal photos or posed shots elsewhere. You can tell rehearsal … in the bath scene which opens Part Two, Bertie Wooster does not have a shirt on, and in some shots Mangan’s natural curly hair is on view, not Wooster’s Brylcreem slick locks. As photos appear online, I’ll add them or link.
Yes, we do theatres here, not just plays. It’s a beautiful building outside, but a clone of so many dingy West End theatres inside, because that’s when it dates from. Low seats, poor rake in the stalls, totally inadequate toilets for women. Full of character, but as so often one longs for the space, modernity and decent seats and loos at the concrete and glass “Arts Centre” theatres like Salisbury Playhouse, Poole Lighthouse or Milton Keynes. They say actors love these old theatres and the sight of all those red plush seats and gilded balconies. Not me.
We have had this with Brighton concerts too, and at last they managed to negotiate an evening rate for the nearest NCP car park, as the previous £30 to park to see a play or concert (assuming you’d travelled and wanted to eat first as well) exceeded even Central London prices. It doesn’t help with matinees, so we’ve opted for parking at the Churchill Square mall, which is also convenient for escaping Brighton’s centre traffic when you leave westward. We arrived at eleven ten for a two thirty show, only to see that the mall is now £3 for two hours or £10 for six hours, both fair, but at one minute more than six hours leaps to £25. Ten past eleven … will six hours take in the play and walking back, or will it just miss? So we had a brunch, then I took the car out, did a U-turn in the road and back in, so paid £13 not £25, but it’s a swine of a car park to find a place in, with narrow spaces, and a waste of over half an hour walking back and moving it. I can see that they are deterring people using the mall for all day parking, because there are few other options in the town. I know all about Brighton’s green policies, but for a tourist town, the anti-car policies are foolish. Add the constant changes from 20 mph limits to 30 mph limits. I wouldn’t mind at all if they introduced a blanket 20 mph limit … it’s a crowded place, but the constant shifts mean ugly street furniture, and is aimed at extracting fines as much as controlling traffic. But I was born in Bournemouth, and we always run down Brighton. They do the same to us. OK, their shopping centre is vastly superior in both size and funkiness, as is their architecture, but we’ve got a real golden sand beach with a car-free promenade, cliffs, beautiful views and two working piers, not rusting piles of scrap out to sea.
Two parking comparisons:
Milton Keynes Theatre, £1.50 all day, but currently free
Chichester Festival Theatre, just over 30 miles away, £4.60 all day