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Perfect Nonsense: adapting Jeeves and Wooster | reviews, news & interviews

Perfect Nonsense: adapting Jeeves and Wooster

Perfect Nonsense: adapting Jeeves and Wooster

Wodehouse's evergreen characters arrive in the West End in an adaptation introduced here by one of its fraternal playwrights

Stephen Mangan and Matthew Macfadyen as Wooster and JeevesDavid Jensen

“She paused and heaved a sigh of relief that seemed to come straight from the cami-knickers.” Recounted our brother Andy, many years ago……. "A silence ensued." This was not his own observation, but a quote from P.G. Wodehouse, whom neither Bobby nor I had ever read. “I call her a ghastly girl because she was a ghastly girl.” He continued.

“She paused and heaved a sigh of relief that seemed to come straight from the cami-knickers.” Recounted our brother Andy, many years ago……. "A silence ensued." This was not his own observation, but a quote from P.G. Wodehouse, whom neither Bobby nor I had ever read. “I call her a ghastly girl because she was a ghastly girl.” He continued. “A droopy, soupy, sentimental exhibit, with melting eyes and a cooing voice and the most extraordinary views on such things as stars and rabbits.”  We were hooked.

As an actor, Bobby, Andy’s twin brother, was looking at the possibility of adapting a comic novel as a one-man show to take to the Edinburgh Festival. And, Bertie Wooster seemed to fit the bill. Reading the Jeeves and Wooster novels confirmed, not only what a rich source of material they offered, but also how perfectly they lent themselves to the concept of a one-man show. The books are narrated by Bertie in a beautifully conversational way that brims with acerbic wit.

The Wodehouse estate's blessing came popping out like a cork out of a champagne bottle

In this show, which I had the pleasure of directing, Bobby would appear as Bertie the raconteur before seamlessly transforming himself into Bertie the character, who would seamlessly transform himself into Jeeves, who in turn would become Aunt Dahlia, before reverting back to Bertie by way of Madeline Bassett. With some judicious editing, Bobby produced a script that contained much of the wittiest language and most of the major plot points of The Code of the Woosters. It all went down rather well in Edinburgh, and he continued to perform the show in other venues around the country.

But that was in the early 1990s, after which we both went off on our own career paths, Bobby as a stage and TV actor, and me as a documentary filmmaker. It was only at a dinner party three years ago, that Mark Goucher, one of our producers, casually reminded us of the show, and suggested that there might be a audience out there waiting for a fresh helping of Jeeves and Wooster. (Pictured below right: Matthew Macfadyen and Stephen Mangan with co-star Mark Hadfield)

We decided that simply reviving the one-man show was not enough, so we started looking at other approaches. “How about a two-man show?” we thought. “And Jeeves and Wooster would be the two men - perfect!” But that wasn’t perfect, because who would play Aunt Dahlia, Sir Watkyn Bassett, Roderick Spode?…. the list goes on. No, it would have to be a cast of 10, or thereabouts. But that would defeat the object of the exercise, particularly as at that stage we were thinking about a fairly modest production.

It dawned on us that if we wanted to keep Bertie as the raconteur we should write a play in which, encouraged by his drinking pals, he would take over a West End theatre and attempt to tell one of his stories in the form of a one-man show. As his loyal valet, Jeeves would naturally accompany Bertie to the theatre and, in the certain knowledge that the show was destined to go horribly wrong, he would have made certain contingency plans.

The script almost wrote itself, and we revelled in the idea that the inscrutable and dignified Jeeves might draw on some hidden talents to play all the other characters. We had a first draft, which we dutifully put before the Wodehouse estate in the hope of securing permission to proceed. What we hadn’t bargained on was that we were not alone, and that there were already a number of other proposals on the table, so we were probably too late.

Undaunted, Bobby and an actor pal, Ed Bennett, organised a rehearsed reading of the script for an invited audience. It went down a storm and gave us the incentive to reapply to the estate, who asked if we could organise another reading for them. Nine members of the estate turned up and while clearly enjoying what they saw, came up with some valuable suggestions – one of which was to introduce a third character. At that point, Bobby and I went away and started on the first of many rewrites.

Eventually we had a script for a three-man play, entitled Perfect Nonsense. We hurried it over to the Wodehouse estate and their blessing came popping out like a cork out of a champagne bottle. Mark Goucher approached Sean Foley to direct, and together they secured the services of Stephen Mangan, Matthew Macfadyen, and Mark Hadfield to do the acting bit.

The Goodale Brothers, as we have now been dubbed, had cause to celebrate. Tragically Andy, who inspired this whole business, died of cancer 10 years ago, but we’re confident that Perfect Nonsense would have had him in fits.

  • Perfect Nonsense is at the Duke of York's Theatre until 8 March
Jeeves would naturally accompany Bertie to the theatre and, in the certain knowledge that the show was destined to go horribly wrong, he would have made certain contingency plans

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