Brighton Year-Round 2021
Directed by Rebecca Warnett, who with Gary Andrews designed the set, Artistic Designer Tim Freeman, built by Keith Gilbert (lead set builder David Rankin). Light and Sound Trevor Morgan. Alison Soudain Wardrobe and wigs. With Production Manager Sue Tait, Stage Manager Estelle Carpenter. ASMs Darren Heather, Dawn Boxall, Claire Chapman, Kirstine Bowen. Till July 17th.
How can you gild a silly without gelding it? P.G. Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters from 1938 was the last cloudless interwar novel before a very different life awaited him. Its dialogue lends it perfectly to radio adaptations, and occasionally we can peek at half-hour rare fillets treated to Fry and Laurie fry-ups.
But take a classic Wodehouse text of interlocking blackmailers, cow creamer, aristo-obsessives a bath of ill-starred newts and crackpot dictators (at least two, one an aunt but only one nodding at lingerie), toss in filigree grace-notes from other novels, then write it as a fourth-wall cascade, theatrically slapping itself on the back so someone falls off a ladder. How dared David and Roger Goodale confect it as Perfect Nonsense? Or to give it its long title Jeeves and Wooster: Perfect Nonsense.
Since 2013 we’ve found out why, and since 2020 we’ve been waiting for what must be the perfect post-lockdown play to unloosen masked laughter. With just three actors, two multi-roling, we even enjoy a modicum of stage distancing (well not entirely) as this postponed show finds its time.
Tom Messmer’s the single drone Bertie Wooster who starts of suddenly telling us he’s on a stage and forgets exactly the notion of a fourth wall, swiftly corrected by Simon Hellyer’s Jeeves – one of five roles he plays. After bluster worthy of the Bullingdon on a broken-bottle night, Jeeves suggests Bertie can tell the story even better with a colleague of his, butler Seppings, Alan Lade’s core part – he has five more.
The famous Criterion production of The 39 Steps sets the bar high with four actors. With just three the effect’s dazzling, far more exciting than with a stage of actors. The farce of role-swapping, dropped wigs, frantic timing as someone stops dangling from a ladder and entering as a harrumphing aunt, turns a verbal farceur into farce proper, but with added ad-lbs aimed directly and addressed to the audience. The fourth wall continually gets a policeman’s helmet lobbed through it – or more precisely handed to a front-row audience-member.
It’s directed with panache and a sure pace by Rebecca Warnett, who with Gary Andrews designed the set in outline. Artistic Designer Tim Freeman takes this as licence to design one of the cleverest LLT sets I’ve seen. Built by Keith Gilbert (lead set builder David Rankin) it’s a series of boards and cartoon-like constructions both highly mobile and touchingly suggestive. Set mainly in a pale greenish-blue ground with black cartoon short-hands for imagery it’s literally story-boarding and one exquisite panel after the interval simply conveys that it’s back.
There’s two flame-feathered dusters that inverted to do service as a faire, in a grate at home or staying at Totleigh Towers (more anon). There’s the magnificent partition of the car, two seats and a frontage with grille, but with a gallimaufry of sound-effects and other matter in a hell a hand-cart stage right Lade as Seppings provides snapshots of the journeys travails with, as man and master (which is which?) travel glumly up to where the main action takes place.
There’s a terrific man of leather on a vertical construction Lade later has to assume as fascist leader of the Blackshorts Roderick spoke with a dark secret, which he mounts though is wheeled out obligingly by others when exiting after threats. Light and Sound by Trevor Morgan works in ideally with this, often with intricate sonics. It’s one of the most virtuosic conceits I’ve seen. That goes for Alison Soudain’s wardrobe and wigs too.
Is there a plot here? Yes and it works ideally because the obsessions and interests dovetail so well. So no Lord Emsworth pig but another uncle by marriage obsessed with silverware has a rival Sir Watkyn Basset (Hellyer, who arrested Bertie for stealing a policeman’s helmet, that one), and aunt Dahlia (Lade) who demands luckless Bertie first buy it at a knock-down but when Basset turn up (and Bertie trips immediately blamed as a thief) he buys it and Bertie’s dispatched by Dahlia to steal it from Basset’s Totleigh Towers. Or he’ll never eat with her again.
His drippy daughter Madeline (Hellyer too) has Bertie lined up as very distant second choice which is fine, his friend newt-obsessive Gussie Fink-Nottle (Hellyer) is marrying her. But then it’s off and Bertie must restore them or marry the girl. To complicate matters Stiffy Bing (Hellyer) who’s seen as a threat blackmails Bertie too, – he must get her intended into favour by apparently foiling Bertie stealing the cow creamer again. Or she’ll release Gus’s dropped notebook full of scabrous things about splenetic Sir Watkyn so he’ll never agree to his daughter marrying Gussie, though quite how he’d then approve of Bertie boggles the brain. But guest fascist bully and amateur dictator Roderick Spode (Lade) has claimed he knows Bertie’s after said creamer and will beat him into a jelly. He starts at over seven feet and ends up at nine. Bertie’s nervous. Especially when his aunt arrives to stiffen his wibble.
Jeeves has an answer, give him a little time and intelligence gathering. Dispose of the towering Spode and there’s an episode where the creamer arrives in the most unexpected manner, just ahead of sir Watkyn. A ladder. A dropped item and a promise to Jeeves concerning a cruise.
Lade’s svelte as Steppings, magnificently grand with a touch of Hell’s Grannies as Aunt Dahlia, a twitchy Shop Proprietor, a wonderfully-voiced Spode with a blissfully shrunk voice when his secret’s out, a doddery Totleigh butler Butterfield (‘no thank you’) and plodding Constable Oates with suggestive padding and porous mind.
Hellyer’s commanding Jeeves brings a touch of velvet mastery, a believable iron in reserve; his Sir Watkyn’s admirably crackpot, his blathering Gussie Fink-Nottle a wail of confusion, Stiffy Bing in scarlet a commanding horsey gal used to getting her way and as poor Madeline drips sentiment all over Bertie’s clean shirts. Hellyer elongates himself to a sylph, arches as Jeeves done by Beerbohm and seems a stick insect as the baronet.
Newcomer Messmer as Bertie Wooster is remarkable. His one role holds attention as the dazzling satellites circle him with menace and identities. His timing too and above all characterisation is sweet-spot centre, his voice and timing ideal, his talent for farce up there with Hellyer and Lade.
This is above all an ensemble play though and the interaction between these three is amongst the tightest I’ve seen at LLT. Huge credit to Warnett and her team, with the set design – chiefly Freeman, Rankin and Gilbert – a fourth actor. With help from Morgan and Soudain. Though I saw the excellent 2013 debut on tour, this is special. It’s a professional-standard production, and magnificent start to the 2020s.