Perfect Nonsense had its inspiration in a one-man play written in the early 90s by the Goodale brothers for the Edinburgh Festival. Twenty years on, the brothers revisited the idea of a Jeeves’ play and wrote Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense. Based loosely on Woodhouse’s third novel, The Code of the Woosters, the play stars Bertie Wooster, the loveable bumbling gentleman and his unflappable and clever valet, Jeeves, who rescues his master from many social misadventures.
Anyone who attempts to bring this iconic double-act to the stage must do it with a sense of peril. For one, the books are almost all written with Bertie as a comical first person narrator, making a transfer to the stage all the more difficult. To maintain this device, this stage version begins when Bertie, breaking the fourth wall, addresses the audience directly as he admits to having been asked by friends to tell his latest adventure on stage. Can’t be that hard after all, actors do it!
In order to help his master retell his tale, Jeeves wheels scenery on stage and transforms into many of the characters. When a third person is needed, the butler Seppings is brought in. Between the two of them, they manage to play Roderick Spode, Sir Watkyn Bassett, Gussie Fink-Nottle, Stiffy Byng and Aunt Dahlia, along with supplying sets, costumes, lighting and sound effects.
In the “play within the play”, Bertie is off to help his friend, Gussie Fink-Nottle, who’s wedding to Madeleine Basset hangs in the balance. But before setting off, his aunt Delia comes calling asking him to steal a silver cow creamer. Bertie makes his way to Sir Watkyn Basset’s country pile with good intentions but as can be expected, everything goes awry. Wherever Bertie goes disaster ensues.
Stephen Mangan (Green Wing, Episodes for TV and The Norman Conquests and Birthday on stage) plays Bertie with the required child-like naiveté and great comic timing while Matthew Macfadyen (Spooks, Private Lives) is amusing as the poker face Jeeves. Macfadyen truly comes into his own when playing simultaneously the roles of the crusty old Sir Watkyn and the manipulative ‘Stiffy’ Bing. Seppings is played energetically by Mark Hadfield and the play is directed at a brisk pace by Sean Foley (The Ladykillers). The ingenious set, designed by Alice Power delivers much of the humour along the way.
Ultimately, however, I was never more than amused. The play was never meant to be high art but I was certainly expecting more laughter. And the problem doesn’t lie in the staging but in the text, which never manages to bring this Edwardian half-wit and his ingenious manservant to hilarity. Breaking the fourth wall is a device used here and there in the theatre. In some plays, this works very successfully as it did in One Man, Two Governors with James Corden and a hummus sandwich. In this case, however, it lacked the magic.
There have been many attempts over the years at conveying the wit and humour of P.G. Woodhouse’s Jeeves novels but, I’m afraid to say that to this day none have been as successful as the early 90s TV version with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. I should note that I saw this production in preview but I fear that no amount of tinkering with the text will elevate this play to a great comedy.