“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?'” “The mood will pass, sir.”
Theatrical ambition takes many shapes but producing the perfect unrepetant frivolity could well be the most daunting (and one could argue the most honourable) undertaking. Director Sean Foley and writers Robert and David Goodale don’t shy away from the challenge and they declare their intentions right from the start: adapting P G Woodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters for the stage, they call it “Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense”. And you know what? It may well be. That’s high praise from me.
The plot of the book remains largely intact but the conceit of the production finds Wooster putting a play up himself in order to tell the story. This allows for theatrical playfulness to bubble up to the surface. Expectations are challenged, subtle dynamics unsettled, props and scenery manipulated to reveal, hide and distract from the artifice. This is the second time this year when a production teases the notion of the same person playing two characters while both characters appear in the story at the same time. (The Trelawny of the Wells at the Donmar played in the same sandbox earlier in the year).
This is all wrapped and polished by the talent of the actors. Stephen Mangan as Wooster finds himself as the straight man holding the whole thing together. Wide eyed and incessantly good natured, he also captures the knowledge and the terror of a man unable to survive by himself.
Matthew Macfadyen’s Jeeves steps up to fulfil any necessary function, behind the scenes or in the limelight. Butler, dresser, stagehand and man of many faces, he balances unflappability with a roller coaster ride of disparate characters tumbling into one another. His Gussie – all bottle glasses and jelly limbs – is particularly fine, as is his beguilingly confident Stiffy Byng. It’s a performance of masterful precision and seemingly bottomless energy.
Mark Hadfield handles the remaining characters. As Seppings, the butler who is roped in to help with Wooster’s production, he is resigned to fate and to lack of confidence. The moment he takes on another character, he is transformed to a comic genius. Anyone who has seen Hadfield’s previous work (his was the only funny gravedigger in the history of Hamlet productions) knows his subtly subversive energy, simultaneously unassuming and unexpectedly explosive.
The evening is a frothy delight whipped to perfection. It delivers in its own terms and leaves a lasting aftertaste of good will. Anyone with no need for uncomplicated fun should avoid.