Review: Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense

Written by: Mark O'Neill

Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

P. G. Wodehouse’s crafted language gives way to physical gags in the Goodale brothers’ delightfully daft take on the enduring toff and butler.

It’s evening when professional gentleman and perpetual layabout Bertie Wooster decides to tell a tale.

Robert Webb stars in Jeeves and Wooster

Robert Webb as Bertie Wooster

He lets the theatre audience know that he, Jeeves and additional manservant Seppings are putting on the night’s production – a dramatisation of one of many pickles in which Wooster has blithely found himself. This despite the fact that he can’t quite remember where to start his story, or understand that his portrayal of a 30-minute walk should be trimmed for time.

There is a touch of the deliberately amateur production to Perfect Nonsense, with actors losing their wigs switching characters, then peddling a bike to power scene changes.

It’s a toned-down form of the winning chaos recently seen in The Play that Goes Wrong, with Bertie remarking about this acting lark: ‘How hard can it be?’ Fairly hard, as it goes: a scene in which Jeeves must play an arguing father and daughter proves a particular challenge.

Jason Thorpe excels at these meta hijinks, and is near-unrecognisable when he turns up as Bertie’s newt-obsessed chum Gussie. There are laughs to be had guessing just how he’ll manage his next transition from one character to another. Christopher Ryan, of The Young Ones fame, is a standout as Seppings in many set-pieces.

Whether emulating a gale with a windshield-smacking branch or doing his utmost to convince as an eight-foot beast of a man, Ryan is admirably kinetic. He fends off a rather cuddly looking ‘rabid dog’ with abandon.

While Thorpe and Ryan both play multiple parts, Robert Webb is the show’s anchor, his Bertie striking the right notes of cheery naivety and childlike fear – usually justified – of getting caught up to no good. The plot unfolding around him serves up a stolen cow-shaped creamer, an offensive notebook, a policeman’s hat, plus obligatory attempts to prevent Bertie being jostled into marriage.

But the fun is less in seeing the preposterous threads resolved than in Webb’s reactions throughout – his gasps and rubbery facial expressions are a highlight. There is less Jeeves than you might expect, but where he appears so do Wodehouse’s witticisms, such as when Bertie reveals that he sometimes ponders whether trousers really matter, and the unflappable butler deadpans: ‘The mood will pass, sir”. Elsewhere, the play-within-a-play conceit allows more of Wodehouse’s words to make it to the stage.

Bertie’s narration is chock-full of his funny lines, but you might miss them on account of near-nonstop slapstick. These jokes are far from new, but fired with such skill and timing they hit the mark.

Sean Foley’s direction injected vim into 2012’s The Ladykillers, and he brings comparable energy to Perfect Nonsense despite a cast of three.

Where The Ladykillers used its small ensemble to good effect, Jeeves and Wooster wrings every laugh possible out of an even tinier band of actors. What ho!

Author: Mark O'Neill

Canterbury-based writer and editor with a love for cinema, literature, theatre and taking everything too seriously. He can mostly be found walking through self-checkouts.

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