Wodehouse in Wonderland, Yeovil Octagon and touring

THE world of PG Wodehouse extends its delights from generation to generation, but most fans of Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, Blandings Castle, Gussie Fink-Nottle et al don’t know much about the man who created them.

Playwright William Humble set about to correct that with his solo show, Wodehouse in Wonderland, performed by Robert Daws and playing at Yeovil’s Octagon Theatre in the final week before it closes for a lengthy and exciting refurbishment. The play is set in Southampton (one of the famous Hamptons on Long Island east of New York) in the 1950s. The house is clearly from the Art Deco period, all metal windows and glamorous cocktail bars. There Plum (as Wodehouse was known) and his wife Bunny live with their two Pekingese dogs and Bunny’s frequent redecorations and extensions.

By this time Wodehouse had become the darling of Broadway, thanks to his collaborations with Jerome Kern and lyrics provided for shows by George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Ivor Novello. With his great friend Guy Bolton contributing the books for the shows, playing golf, walking and generally supporting the expatriate Englishman, Plum could continue to write his books and delight his fans around the world.

He was truly an innocent in the world, and when, while living in France, in the early years of the Second World War, he was released from German internment, he agreed to broadcast from Germany to the USA, which had still not joined the war. His “motives” – which were to entertain and reassure his many fans – were immediately pulled under the microscope of suspicion and Wodehouse became an outcast, unable to return to his native land. Hence his long residence in America after the war.

He described his books as musical comedy without the music – they were light comedies with silly characters, daffy plots and happy hopeful endings. But his own life was not so simple. He hardly saw his parents during his childhood. They were in the Far East and he was brought up by a regiment of aunts, who provided a deal of copy for the relatives in the Bertie Wooster stories and others. His marriage, to an English widowed mother of a nine-year-old daughter, brought him huge happiness. But while he was incarcerated in France during the German occupation, his beloved adopted daughter Snorkles died in London, and he never ceased grieving the loss.

Robert Daws gives a tour-de-force performance, seamlessly moving between the reserve of Jeeves and the point-perfect facial and vocal expressions of Malcolm Muggeridge, singing the songs, calling the dogs, breaking up under the questioning of his earnest young American biographer, recapturing his very English equanimity and being a jolly good chap. The play has its longueurs, and the Yeovil audience on the opening night took a deal of warming up, but Daws had the patience and pace to bring them round to the subject. He might not have managed it in the wide open spaces of Westlands, where live performances and film will continue until the new Octagon is ready to welcome its loyal fans back again.


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