Musicals

 

THE IMPOSTERS

 

 

 

 

 

A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

By Jeeves

 


An Almost Entirely New Musical by
Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber
Based on the Jeeves stories by P. G. Wodehouse


Nick Bagnall - Director


Andrew Wright - Choreographer


David Rose - Musical Director

 

Landor Theatre

 


Opens 1 Feb. - 5 weeks only

 

This chipper, pared down musical takes as its' premise an amateur show being staged in a village hall , a la the Union's Theatre's fine West End transfer of the musical version of Irish based film A Man of No Importance, but there the similarities end. For few things could be more quintessentially English than P. G. Wodehouse's ever reliable man-servant Jeeves, and his charmingly idiotic young master, Bertie Wooster.

When you enter the Landor Theatre, you find yourself sitting amid the cheery clutter of LIttle Wittan Parish hall, with its notice board, sports gear, red white and blue bunting and smiling ladies offering cucumber sandwiches, cherry bakewells and slices of Victoria sponge. You are now part of the late 1920's, early '30's world of Wodehouse's loyal valet, Jeeves, his erratic, boobified 'master' Bertie Wooster and Bertie's equally clueless, well to do friends. An excellent four piece, live band becomes a pivotal part of the performance too, and the characters speak to them as though they, like us, are also members of the local community.

The 1975 musical Jeeves had the distinction of being Andrew Lloyd Webber's only flop. However, its 1996 reworking, By Jeeves, enjoyed a successful West End run, through three different theatres, reaching the U.S. in 1996, opening on Broadway in 2001. This fringe production marks By Jeeves fifteenth anniversary.

Bertie's in a fix. His banjo is on the fritz, the new one hasn't arrived and he's meant to be entertaining the eager hundreds, eh, tens, of people in the village hall in a show starring him - Banjo Boy. Jeeves to the rescue. Facetiously reminding Bertie that he's lead a very 'interesting' life, the ingenious valet suggests his master amuse the audience with anecdocts until his new instrument arrives, from Kent. This opens the door for all sorts of scurilous scenarios and semi-dodgy characters, who like Bertie, often have more money than sense.

One device causes Bertie to address the audience directly at times, as he might at a village fete, but in some moments his narrative tends to be a bit too familar and 'by joveish'. If he's meant to include the audience that way, it doesn't really work. Granted, it must be difficult to keep a character who's meant to be shallow but endearing, interesting, and Kevin Trainor does a good job of keeping the likeable aspects of Bertie's limited range apparent. Trainor is also a spiffing singer who enacts the upper crust cheeky chappie bit with verve and as much naturalness as a glib but harmless ass of a man could hope to muster. As the gentleman's gentleman whom Bertie depends on, Jeeves, Paul M Meston exudes an almost fatherly, albiet hired, widom, making it understood that he has saved his master's bacon time and time again. Ever in charge of his emotions, Jeeves is the pinacle of diplomacy, though he's not beyond manouevering things, as he deems it his duty to protect Bertie from himself. Something Jeeves does well; Meston is definitely up to the challenges his role demands.

David Menkin plays proverbial fly in the ointment Cyrus Budge III, American 'jelly' (jam to you) heir who makes a play for the object of wonderfully droll and loping bespectacled Gussie Fink-Nottle's (Andrew Pepper) adoration - blonde Betty Boopesque Madeline Bassett (Helen George), who shows a distinct flair for comedy, musical or othewise. Pepper's performance here is likewise, a very enjoyable one. Bertie's other pal, Bingo Little (Owain Rhys Davies) seems a laughably trusting chap, so much so that he's bound to come a cropper when it comes to his errant friend Bertie. No Jeeves tale would be complete without at least one huffing and puffing dignitary, a role aptly played here by red-faced, 'belly with good capon lined' Tim Hudson as marvellously self-important Sir Watkyn Bassett.

It would be impossible to fault any of the energetic performances in this production, though there were moments when even a Jeeves lover like me had leave to pause a bit too much. But, as you might expect given its luminous, well seasoned authors, there are also some genuine high-points, among them, the title song, 'By Jeeves', so well performed you'd swear you were sitting somewhere up West, rather than in the cosy Landor. But, it was unclear whether the show just hasn't held up as well as it might have over time or this production of it could do with some revamping where it tends to lag and perhaps, a bit more earnestness not in its performances, which are already first rate, as Bertie might say, but in its pacing.

The show picks up momentum and is most engaging when the actors interact with one another through song, most notably, when three of the male characters, Bertie (Kevin Trainor), Gussie (Andrew Pepper) and Bingo (Owain Rhys Davies) sing the show's rousing title song, 'By Jeeves' complete with vintage '30's looking dance routine, amateur show style, and couples swoon, in one case, in one another's arms under a moon looking suspiciously like a leather basketball being held aloft by an audience member. Lloyd Webber is know for writing lovely ballads and the ones he's penned for this show are definitely two of its highlights. 'That Was Nearly Us', as sung, then belted out, by multi-talented, natural scene stealer Charlotte Mills, much to her ex, Bertie's chagrin, is equalled (and possibly topped) only by the delightfully rendered duet on 'Half a Moment, ' as performed by wanna be spouses Stiffy Byng (Jenni Maitland) and Harold "Stinker" Pinker (Brendan Cull). Both numbers drew enthusiastic rounds of applause from the audience. Andrew Wright's choreography manages to suggest the era as well as the amateurness of the village show.

Perhaps one of the main reasons I initially had difficulty settling into this show was the fact that its' show within a show premise was intermittenly, but continually being derailed by Kevin Trainor as Bertie's frequent, seemingly random to-ing and fro-ing between one world and the other, which due to its frequency, proved to be more of a distraction than an asset. Despite the chaotically comic nature of Bertie's re-enacted misadventure, with its' multiple mistaken identity aspects and frantic scenarios, such interupptions might better serve the show if they only occurred at the beginning and end; in that way, the audience might have a better chance of becoming more fully engaged. As it was, looks of puzzlement were visible on several faces further into the first act than is, according to my experience, desirable.

That said, by the end of the second half, any obviously manipulative tactics like spririted reprives of three of the show's best songs, chunky West End style confetti raining on actors, and allusions (through costumes) to Lloyd Webber's upcoming Palladium extravaganza, The Wizard of Oz, most, if not all of the audience members seemed to be totally behind the actors, particularly Paul M. Meston as Jeeves and Kevin Trainor as Bertie, as evidenced by their hearty applause and cheers at the end of the show, which was just as it should be.

 

 

Landor Theatre in Clapham
from Tuesday 1 February to Saturday 5 March.

Tickets cost £22.50 and are available online from the theatre box office or by calling 020 7737 7276.

Follow @ByJeevesLondon on Twitter.

 

 

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