Some people can be very kind.
When Phil announced to anyone who would listen at the Sunday matinée preview of By Jeeves at the Landor Theatre that he’d seen the original production, the overly generous and perhaps slightly naïve response was “That must be fifteen years ago!”
What of course Phil meant was the pre-London, Bristol Hippodrome tryout of Jeeves (as it was called in those long gone days back when Colin Firth was probably still on the throne).
If the Whingers had been together (in the co-dependent theatregoers sense) then its doubtful they would have made it even to the interval. Early previews apparently ran at four and three-quarter hours. Phil remembers the performance he endured going well beyond three and a half hours. Phil’s family became prototype Whingers unanimously agreeing it wasn’t very good and way too long. If only Sir Trevor Nunn had been brought in to cut it down to size.
Sheared of most of its numbers (only three remain from the original) and reworked in 1996 as By Jeeves it’s now running at an easier to digest two and a half hours (including interval).
But sadly, it felt every minute of it.
What went wrong? Things began very promisingly with cucumber sandwiches handed out by the cast. Given budgetry constraints (and what with the price of cucumbers these days) there was barely a sliver of filling in Andrew’s but that’s not the point. It was a nice touch.
And remember that the Whingers are always up for strangulated vowels and a bit of silly-twittery. They had been completely entranced by the delightful Salad Days– perhaps too recently. Was this the problem? Cucumber = salad. Reminding us of that show was a big mistake.
But Phil’s faltering memory seemed to be working better than he thought. As the audience took their seats the music being played seemed rather familiar. Surely he couldn’t remember a number from Jeeves? Andrew corrected him. “That’s because it’s ‘Isn’t It Romantic?’ isn’t it?” Well, not quite. It turned out to be one of the songs from the show. No wonder By Jeeves is billed as “An Almost Entirely New Musical”.
We won’t trouble you with the plot which involves characters with glorious names like Stinker, Bingo, Gussie Fink-Nottle and er, Stiffy (a woman) and the misunderstandings that ensue from borrowing each others’ names. It’s so horribly convoluted that the Whingers lost the plot even faster than they usually do.
But it’s worth dwelling for a moment on the fact that this is a show-within-a-show affair, a device which often seems to be a good indicator of a lack of faith in the material. Sadly, propping things up by putting them in theatrical quote marks seems a bit stable-door-after-bolting and so it proves here in a scenario which the audience finds itself in Little Wittam Village Hall where Bertie Wooster is about to perform on his banjo to raise money for the church steeple.
But the banjo has been stolen and so Jeeves suggests that he instead relate a completely unrelated story that recently happened to him. The villagers enthusiastically join in to help, playing all the parts. For reasons that were not apparent Bertie could remember very little of the story so Jeeves would be called upon to step in from time to time and whatever-the-verb-is-that-relates-to-exposition.
And it is all done with a rather desperate “madcapness” which sucked every last ounce of goodwill out of the Whingers.
Indeed, it was only slightly less frenetic than Andrew’s desperate search for a musical instrument shop in Landor Road during the interval. His plan was to buy a new banjo for Bertie Wooster to bring the whole thing to an end as soon as possible (This in spite of Bertie’s rather foolhardy and tempting gauntlet at the close of Act One: “Let’s see if they [the audience] are here when we get back”).
The numbers are often enjoyably jaunty, the band very decent, it’s agreeably designed (Morgan Large) and lit (Mike Robertson) and the cast throw themselves enthusiastically into the energetic choreography (Andrew Wright) and stamping (presumably also Andrew Wright). As they are sometimes dressed in tweeds there’s an awful lot of sweat flying around.
The role of Jeeves (Paul M Meston) is – rather oddly given the title- a very minor one. Kevin Trainor‘s Bertram Wooster carries most of the show (he’s almost permanently on stage) and does that rather well although Phil was a bit distracted from the performance because Trainor vaguely reminded him of artist Maggi Hambling.
It’s the first fringe musical we remember which ends with a mega-mix of the show’s numbers. And certainly the first where the cast end up dressed up, for no particular reason as characters from The Wizard of Oz. With Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of that show beginning previews at the Palladium was this knowing self reference or a cynical plug for that show? Sadly it just turns out to be coincidence.
Anyway, sorry, but we didn’t buy Jeeves at all.