MY first awareness of Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known, in the same way as other early 20th Century writers HG, AA and TS, by his initials, PG, was through a strangely funny programme on BBC1 in the early 1970s called Wodehouse Playhouse, which I was encouraged to watch because it starred two people from my aunt’s years at RADA, namely John Alderton and Pauline Collins. All I remember of the programmes were that they were introduced by the writer himself, in his latter years at that point, and that the stories and characters were funny.
Wodehouse was born twenty years before Queen Victoria died, and wrote during the reigns of five British monarchs, including working with American song writers, most famously Cole Porter and Jerome Kern, as one of the world’s highest paid authors of the 1930s, and continued until his death in 1975, aged 93. The characters from his novels and short stories have peopled radio and television since they both began, most recently in the BBC Sunday afternoon comedy Blandings, which had also been a huge success on the radio.
His two most famous characters though, must be the awfully posh, nice-but-dim Bertie Wooster and his trusty valet Jeeves, played respectively by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry twenty years ago on ITV, and featuring in novels and short stories between 1915 and 1974. This, the latest, and first major West End production of an adaptation of a Jeeves novel, namely The Code of the Woosters, has been crafted as a three-man show, with Wooster, Jeeves, and Seppings, a butler, relating the story and playing all of the many, varied and colourful characters.
One person is on stage as himself for the whole play, Bertie Wooster, played by Joel Sams in Bath (and for one memorable scene, in the bath) this evening, and had I not been told in advance, I would never have known he was the understudy, so polished, slick, effective and rounded was his performance, with great comic timing, just the right level of naivety and alienation, and quick on his feet in the swift moves and dance encore.
As Jeeves, John Gordon Sinclair is the ideal foil for Wooster, getting him out of every scrape in the story, as well as in the play, by building scenery, rotating the stage, and playing three other major characters, including a hilarious scene with his left half dressed as young Madeline Bassett and his right half as her pipe-smoking uncle Sir Watkyn, rotating line by line to hilarious effect, and some mighty quick changes, including walking out of a door as Jeeves only to appear within seconds from beneath a bed on the other side of the stage as short-sighted Gussie Fink-Nottle. This was comedy, slapstick and sleight of whole body played to extreme perfection.
Robert Goodale not only adapted the story for the stage with his brother David, but also plays butler Seppings, as well as the extremely tall Roderick Spode, climbing in and out of a seven-foot high costume, Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia, and the village policeman. He is every bit as accomplished as the other two actors, equally adept at a quick change and a spot of ventriloquism as needed, and dancing along with the others during their curtain call.
This clever and witty original story has been adapted with care, love and attention by use of some lovely techniques and skillful characterisation, and the resulting play is stagecraft perfected: a wonderful evening’s entertainment in the company of three actors at their very best.
Photograph Uli Weber