BERTIE STORMS THE STAGE – and gets the cheese!
When Bertie Wooster, with a start, realizes that the curtain has gone up and turns from his easy-chair to apologize (“I thought we said 7.30 for eight?”), there is flash of overwhite teeth, a sleek Brylcreem parting and a vacuous “Haw-haw-haw” from Stephen Mangan. Which together made me think “Blimey! Duke of York’s Theatre, and there IS the Duke of York! Prince Andrew, to the life!”.
Which I am sure is not deliberate. But it added another tiny layer of pleasure. And this adorable production is about layering joy on joy, joke on joke in a delectable millefeuille of absurdity. The Goodale Brothers script keeps P.G.Wodehouse’ language at its heart in a way TV dramatizations don’t manage. It does this by making Bertie the narrator: to have him only in dialogue is never enough to keep us gruntled, because the joke in the novels is that the dim tongue-tied Bertie is, in narrative, a matchless verbal acrobat.
The idea is that he is back from the eventful weekend at Totleigh Towers in The Code of the Woosters – the one with the cow-creamer, Spode, Madeleine Bassett, Gussie Fink-Nottle and Aunt Dahlia’s blackmail . Someone at the Drones told him he should be on stage, so there he is, alone with retro footlights and visible fly-ropes. He cannot, of course , manage without Jeeves: so in shimmers Matthew Macfadyen, razor-sharp creases to his trousers. He wheels on a series of chimneypieces, walls, a car, a gratuitous ceiling at one point, and in the second act a home-made revolve off which Bertie tumbles in panic. “It’s called scenery, sir. Quite widely used in the theatre”. Game as ever, though distracted by wanting to play with the props, Bertie struggles on, warning us “There are boring bits in every play. This is one” as he tries to get dressed unassisted behind a screen.
Jeeves takes on other parts – blundering newt-maniac Gussie in pebble glasses and Fairisle tank-top, stridingly bossy Stiffy Byng, Sir Watkyn, and a soppily romantic Madeleine in half a curtain and a lampshade, the quintessence of feminine threat as she utters, to a shuddering Bertie, “A sigh that seemed to come straight from the camiknickers”. Aunt Dahlia’s ancient butler Seppings (Mark Hadfield) is everyone else – the aunt, a worryingly camp ginger manservant, a policeman , the sound-effects and the eight-foot tall fascist buffoon Spode. The Hitler moustache is easy enough, but the diminutive Seppings’ has to achieve Spodeian height with increasingly desperate theatrical devices , which brought actual cheers.
The joy of Sean Foley’s direction is the way that Wodehousian absurdities (plus a few extra to tidy up the ending) are complemented, not overbalanced, by Alice Power’s set and innumerable vaudeville devices and jokes about doubled characters trying to meet one another. It’s top-grade physical meta-theatre, yet still Wodehouse. I could go on – about the rubber duck, the side-whisker disaster and bowtie triumph, the dog attack, the knotted sheets, the surprise bicycle. But just go. Tickets start at twenty quid. It’ll sell quick, so Bertie would say, screw your courage to the sticking-plaster and besiege the box office.
box office 0844 871 3051 http://www.atgtickets.com to 8 March