Saturday, October 12, 2013

Matthew Macfadyen: What is it about Jeeves and Wooster?

Matthew Macfayden (left), and Stephen Mangan (right) with director Sean Foley (centre) on the rehearsal set of their new Jeeves and Wooster play Perfect Nonsense

By Jasper Rees1:00PM BST
08 Oct 2013

The consistency of a divine soufflé. The delicacy of finest bone china. Choose your own image to embody the unimprovable prose of PG Wodehouse.

Those who tamper with it do so at their own peril. The BBC’s recent attempt to capture the bucolic anarchy of the Blandings books had all the sophistication of a whoopee cushion. So we must treat a new stage version of the even more untouchable Jeeves and Wooster with trepidation.

Perfect Nonsense is bearing down on the West End with a cast that may at least smooth the furrowed brows of worried Wodehousians. Stephen Mangan, who plays Bertie, is a victor ludorum in comic buffoonery — as seen in Green Wing and Episodes and above all in the Tony-winning The Norman Conquests.

Matthew Macfadyen will bring to his Jeeves the same still poker face he deployed to such effect in Spooks, but having starred in Private Lives (opposite Kim Cattrall), he also knows about stage mayhem. So that’s all tickety-boo.

But there is a twist. In what is being billed as An Evening with Jeeves and Wooster, there is just one other actor in the cast. So in this adaptation of The Code of the Woosters — the one with the cow creamer — who is going to play Roderick Spode, Sir Watkyn Bassett, Gussie Fink-Nottle, Stiffy Byng and, with no actress on the payroll, the redoubtable Aunt Dahlia? The answer is that the ever resourceful Jeeves will, with the help of his valeting colleague Seppings. He will also supply set, costumes and lighting.

Yes, like previous West End comedy blockbusters The 39 Steps and The Play What I Wrote, Perfect Nonsense is a short-staffed play within a play. That explains the presence of the comedy director Sean Foley, one half of the comic troupe The Right Size whose stage hit The Ladykillers is doing a second stint in the West End. As they wrestled with the script supplied by Robert and David Goodale, the stars and their director explain how it’ll all be all right on the night.

Jasper Rees Wouldn’t it have been so much simpler to do a straight adaptation?

Stephen Mangan It would have probably felt a little bit, why do it? I can’t imagine it being as fun to do. Part of the problem is you’re taking all those perfectly constructed sentences and shouting them in a theatre. Will they survive? This preserves a lot of Bertie’s wit. I’m just banking on the fact that the sort of person who enjoys Wodehouse is the sort of person who won’t come along looking for problems.

Sean Foley A dutiful old-style rep version would be deathly boring. It’s a brilliant conceit. Bertie has been told he’s a wonderful actor and why doesn’t he just tell one of his wonderful stories in a theatre one night? He thinks, what a terrific idea, and within 30 seconds it’s a disaster. Jeeves comes on and save the day, and how.

Matthew Macfadyen It’s interesting to think how many people will think it’s a conventional proscenium arch retelling of a PG Wodehouse book. The fourth wall is in and out the whole time. The audience really is the fourth character in the play.

JR Which must make it particularly hard to rehearse?

SM When you read the script first you laugh a lot. And then as you work on it over the weeks it becomes less and less funny because you’ve heard all the jokes. The show is like a thousand-piece jigsaw and at the moment I feel like I’ve lost the pieces. Noises Off was the same. You go, “This is never going to work.”

SF It’s like four-dimensional chess. Or even seven, let’s be honest. It’s why I love first previews because it’s when you meet the audience. I sit there in the last dress rehearsals going, it’s a disaster. And then the healing wave of laughter comes and you’re away.

SM They are exciting evenings but I do always think, what lunatic comes to a first preview? Why would you want to see a show that isn’t ready yet? But we need somebody there.

MM Buffering, that’s our new word. In the course of a mini run we’ve just stopped where the downloading has stopped and we just don’t know what’s coming next. It’s not even a question of trying to remember. But we are lucky in the sense that Jeeves and Wooster are putting it on and they’re hoping for the best.


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