Full disclosure: I went to this play in the expectation of being disappointed. I had seen this play at the Oxford Playhouse last year, with no less than Robert Webb starring as Bertie Wooster. So I was aware of the enormous acting range, props and scene changes required and I doubted that a student production could pull it off. I could not have been more wrong.
What’s so complicated about this play? It’s just some good old P.G. Woodhouse; can’t be that hard, can it? Written by David and Robert Goodale, it’s a play about the endearingly dim-witted British gentleman Bertie Wooster’s own play about the recent entanglements of his life. But there can be no such play without a cast, so butlers Jeeves and Seppings are recruited to multi-role over ten (!) supporting characters between them in about five different settings. You might begin to see my worries.
But there had been encouraging signs too. A marvellously professional website, jeevesandwoosteroxford.com, designed by Sam Wright, and the courteous ushering of Jeeves (Jonny Wiles) and Seppings (Adam Diaper) upon arrival were nice touches.
From the start, Joe Stephenson’s upbeat, physical and humorous enactment of Bertie Wooster’s opening lines got some good laughs. But then the first scene and costume changes came along, and one of them took really long. Just when I thought my doubts had been confirmed, Bertie bridged the silence brilliantly by saying: “there are boring bits in every play and I am afraid that this is the one in mine.”
And so we embarked on a theatrical journey with Wooster, Jeeves and Seppings, that brought the house down in laughter and ovations. The range of Wiles and Diaper’s acting is phenomenal, with each of them playing between four and six completely different characters. Jonny Wiles is incredibly deft in distinguishing characters by only so much as a gesture or facial expression. His half Stiffy/half Watkyn Bassett, with matching half/half costume, was the grandiose climax of a stellar performance. Diaper’s performance was equally inspired, with accents, sounds (watch out for the train!) and physicality, that were the source of much joy and laughter.
In such a complex play, credit must go to the stage manager (Pippa James), art director (Franciska Csongrady), set designer (Gabriele Juzeliunaite) and costume designer (Gwyneth Everson). Each came up with creative ways of ensuring swift scene changes: furniture with two different sides, costume changes by adding or subtracting a layer or two, and more. And when the scene changes took a bit longer, clever lines contrived to make the audience believe this was very much part of the trio’s own trials and tribulations. Much more realistic, I came to think, than the rotating stage I had seen in the recent professional production.
If I had to offer a criticism it would be to point out the handful of instances in which Jeeves and Wooster tripped over their words, or that the stage (bathtub, bed, chair, lamp, bookshelf) seemed at times too cluttered, even that the programme too exactly matched the website. But in sum, this is one of the most professional student productions I have seen. In acting, set, music, dance, you name it, but also for its website, programme, marketing, Jeeves and Wooster were in a league of their own. Director Olly Jackson deserves praise for it all. So, buy your tickets now. You will have a jolly good time!