Originally published on London Box Office
Well well well, I know that comedy plays can often be fast-paced, keeping the audience on their toes, out of their seats and (hopefully) rolling on the floor laughing. But the speed of the last cast change for Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense is not what I had in mind. The previous stars of the West End show, Robert Webb and Mark Heap, seem to have lasted just under 3 months before 2 new leading men took over the title characters of Jeeves (John Gordon Sinclair) and Wooster (James Lance). If only the play itself had conjured up that same level of energy, I might not have left the Duke of York’s theatre feeling slightly flat.
The plot is an interesting take on a fairly typical farce – Wooster (Lance) decides to put on a play that tells the audience about an escapade he was recently caught up in. Of course being Wooster, he enlists the help of faithful butlers Jeeves (Sinclair) and Seppings (Robert Goodale, also a co-adaptor of the book) who proceed in bringing the story to life whilst Wooster gets frequently sidetracked narrating the exploits. Threats of marriage, competitive families and an attempt to steal a silver cow creamer all become embroiled in the fantastical yarn that Wooster eventually spins.
In theory this play was all set up to be the recipe for a great success, not unlike the rather incredible cupcake I was eating throughout the performance! Step 1; take a classic novel/ 90’s comedy-drama (hats off to P.G. Wodehouse and that wonderfully British comedic duo Fry and Laurie). Step 2; add award-winning adaptors David & Robert Goodale (Best New Comedy, 2014 Olivier Awards) and whisk the two together to produce a light-hearted and witty book that captures the essence of the original characters perfectly. Step 3; drop in the 3 main characters to complement each other and add highly amusing facial expressions. Bake for 2 hours to produce an interactive show reminiscent of the lovechild between ‘1 Man 2 Guvnors’ and ‘The 39 Steps’. Decorate with a well designed set that fits together in a jigsaw-like fashion and sprinkle with inventive props (dreamed up by Alice Power). How can this cake not taste delicious?!
Well in practice, I think perhaps the actor ingredients were slightly past their sell-by date. This made for a pleasant show but with a disappointing aftertaste. I came away thinking that to make this cake-show hybrid truly spectacular it needed an extra pinch of something ‘zingy’. Farces of this style should be fast-paced and timed to perfection. Unfortunately, Wooster (Lance) lacked the courage to wait that one extra moment at the end of each gag, or to take advantage of the situation when he fumbled a line. Now in all fairness these are really rare qualities to have, but they transform an amusing and pleasant play with an average comic actor into a side-splitting masterpiece with a comical genius. That and a well placed eyebrow. Jeeves (Sinclair) had a better sense of timing, which came to the fore nearer the end of the second half, but by that point it was too late. It was as if the actors needed warming up beforehand, I just wanted to grab them and force feed them the strong cup of coffee I am currently sipping to keep me ‘zingy’ for this review!
Now of course I would have given this 1 star out of 5 if I thought it was terrible and I didn’t. So I must have thought some good things about it right? Right! The interplay between the 2 main protagonists was captivating right from the start. I particularly loved the way the show opened, with Wooster (Lance) reclining in a lounge chair whimsically musing to the audience whilst Jeeves (Sinclair) remained in the background efficiently preparing the backdrop with an unflinching sense of duty and propriety. That relationship was immediately obvious and wonderfully maintained throughout the play – Jeeves (Sinclair) frequently reminded Wooster (Lance) of events that occurred and offered much needed assistance as any top notch butler would. The serious nature with which both butlers performed their duties was in clever juxtaposition with the production’s overall humour, especially when they played some of the alternative characters in the story – watch out in particular for Roderick Spode and Gussie Fink-Nottle! In particular, the physical aspect of these characters was really a joy to watch and provided many of the play’s biggest laughs. I was definitely close to a side-splitting moment during the cat-and-mouse interaction during the bedroom scene! All of the more physical sequences were really well punctuated by a very clever use of props. I won’t spoil the laughs but I particularly enjoyed the smoking pipe and the use of lampshades in the production (how cryptic!).
Overall I did enjoy the evening, cupcake in one hand and gin & tonic in the other, watching the stage equivalent of UK Gold on TV. But I felt like I was watching one of those filler shows that you tune in to before the main event. Whilst well conceptualised and visually well executed, I just felt that this comedy show didn’t ignite my taste buds right from the go and leave me hungry for more.