By Jeeves is the latest short stay offering from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s back catalogue on The Shows Must Go On. The pre-publicity has tended to concentrate on the Lord’s contribution but the book and lyrics by Alan Ayckbourn and the original plot lines of P.G. Wodehouse are just as important and I was prompted to renew my acquaintance with this perfect for a Bank Holiday weekend show.
Back in the mid-1970s Lloyd Webber and Ayckbourn put their heads together to create a new musical. This acknowledged disaster of a show (then simply known as Jeeves) became notorious as this illustrious duo’s only flop (The full story makes for a fascinating read and I would recommend its telling by Simon Murgatroyd – Ayckbourn’s archivist – click here). Fast forward nearly 20 years and the couple wishing to get closure on unfinished business completely overhauled the show. Basically, they are two different beasts, with this second version (By Jeeves) presented in a much simpler but far more effective version. It was chosen by Ayckbourn to open the latest iteration of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough in 1996 and it is here I saw it for the first time finding it utterly captivating. The show went on to the West End and then to Broadway where, unfortunately, the opening coincided with 9/11. You can probably guess that in those dark days theatre going was about as high on anyone’s agenda as it is currently and the show closed prematurely. Fortunately, Canadian television had the foresight to record the production and it is this version that is currently being shown.
Ayckbourn has taken plot lines from several of Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories and skilfully woven them together to provide a greatest hits compilation. That said, Roderick Spode and various aunts are missing from the narrative (they were in the original show) but there is still plenty to keep any Wodehouseophile more than satisfied. The main plot revolves around Bertie trying to sort out the tangled live loves of various fellow members of the Drones Club while only making matters worse; there is also another Wodehouse staple with a spot of amateur burglary in a pig mask. Mistaken identity, that staple of British farce, abounds. Where it becomes clever though, is that this is a show within a show. Supposedly putting on a banjo concert for charity in a local village hall, it transpires that said instrument has gone missing (although Jeeves clearly knows the truth) and another has had to be ordered from a shop in Kent. Until then Bertie must fill the considerable gap with a story about a recent adventure which turns out to be the play we watch. Jeeves acts as Bertie’s stage manager conjuring up costumes and props from the somewhat under resourced village hall supply and keeping the narrative flowing when Bertie falters. All of this gives the production a delightfully ramshackle air where a table, sofa and carboard boxes can be lashed together to form Bertie’s car and there is no need to supply a full set as most musicals would do.
The quality of the writing and the musical numbers, however, is far from make do and mend. The melodies have a delightful charm which makes many of them instantly memorable showing that it was quite right of Lloyd Webber to rescue them from the wreckage of the original musical and rework them. The music is played by a small ensemble adding to the feel of a locally staged and hastily arranged concert party. Ayckbourn demonstrates a flair for intricate and witty lyrics to rival Arthur Sullivan. Above all the book and the production perfectly capture Wodehouse’s never changing sunny world of innocence and delight – indeed the introduction of the word ‘heterosexual’ into a song causes just a momentary jarring.
Ayckbourn also takes the reins as a director and does so with a sense of mischief which is entirely appropriate. Starting like an episode of “The Show That Goes Wrong” the amateurish nature of the production cleverly disguises how well thought through it is. For instance, there is a very clever piece of staging with a ladder and a window frame which shows just how carefully rehearsed everything must have been. Generally, though, silliness (in the best possible sense) abounds. Even in what would normally be the big Lloyd Webber production number “Half A Moment”, Ayckbourn cuts through the sentiment with a sight gag which entirely undercuts any attempt at pretension.
John Scherer as Bertie holds proceedings together and is onstage pretty much throughout. Despite that his energy never flags and he successfully captures the spirit of the lovable nincompoop; he has a good singing voice too. Jeeves, his very correct valet (note please to some reviewers, Jeeves is a valet NOT a butler) is played by Martin Jarvis the only actual British member of the cast. Jarvis ensures that we know that Jeeves is really in charge and delivers his lines with beautifully rounded tones and knowing looks. There is some accent slippage among the other eight cast members but somehow this doesn’t matter too much as they capture the spirit of the piece and are clearly having a ball. If this cast isn’t, to my mind, quite as successful as the originals I saw back in 1996 that’s probably more to do with how memorable it was seeing this show in its original home in Scarborough.
As with all the Lloyd Webber online releases this show is only available for a very limited time so you need to hurry to catch it – and you should. In these troubled times here is a show which is pure escapism to lift the spirits and recall a sunnier age. Pip pip!
By Jeeves is available on The Shows Must Go On until May 10th. Click here
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