Warning: this post may contain spoilers
I watched the streamed version of 'By Jeeves' today. I have thoughts that I want to express.
There’s a saying in show business: “If you have a good strong finish, they'll forgive anything.” (Well, maybe it’s only Rose in ‘Gypsy’ who says that, but it has wider applications.) This show was the opposite of that. I was going along with the badness of the adaptation, the absurdity of the plot, the silliness of the narrative framework, and the falseness of the characters – and then the ending came along and trumped everything else with its awfulness.
For starters, the narrative framework was silly. Bertie Wooster is due to give a banjo recital at a local hall, but the banjo goes missing, so his valet Jeeves convinces Bertie to entertain the audience with a reminiscence. But rather than commit wholeheartedly to the story, Bertie and Jeeves keep popping out of it with references to bad props and lighting and music. At the times when the plot went along as normal, it was quite an enjoyable play, for what it was. Then Jeeves would appear with a car built from a sofa and some cardboard boxes, or a ladder going to nowhere, or a pig mask (more about that later), and destroy the mood. I wish the writer Alan Ayckbourn had committed to the plot, rather than framing it in this way. It felt silly. It set the wrong tone. P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories are comedies of manners, not farces (although they often contain farcical elements). The comedy is subtle, not broad.
On the matter of tone, I noticed a distinct lack of the 30s slang which gave the original stories their flavour. Bertie spoke generic upper-class English in this play, rather than the lingo of his time and his culture.
With regard to the story, I’m not sure where this plot came from. I don’t pretend to have read all the Jeeves and Wooster stories, but I do have the book that the setting for this play comes from: ‘The Code of the Woosters’. The backdrop of Totleigh Towers and most of the characters in the play come from this novel. But the plot is nothing like the book. It has elements that are reminiscent of Wodehouse’s stories, such as characters pretending to be each other (which was too over-the-top in this play), and Bertie having to steal something to create a diversion, but the plot itself is an invention of Ayckbourn’s (I assume).
The scene near the end of the play with the whole household running around chasing a man in a pig mask, while singing about hunting and implying that they think it’s a real pig, was jarring. The pig mask came from the framing narrative, where Bertie’s trying to give a banjo recital but has to tell a story instead. Jeeves is stage-managing the story-telling, and produces a pig mask that he found in the back of the theatre for Bertie to wear when he acts out breaking into Totleigh Towers and pretending to steal a bag of swag because… who cares. He wears the mask as a prop to tell the story. But, in the story that Bertie is telling, the other people see a man wearing a pig mask, and start talking about a chauvinist pig, a real pig, and hunting wild boar. If the pig mask came from the theatre, then it wasn’t used in the original fake burglary, so the people wouldn’t have seen a man wearing a mask, so they wouldn’t have been singing “It’s a Pig!”
I get the feeling that Alan Ayckbourn didn’t really understand the source material, and wrote his own play, using some names from the original stories.
As evidence of this, Bertie Wooster himself was wrong. He was far too competent and intelligent. Situations kept happening to him, rather than being caused by him. He’s not supposed to be a sensible man surrounded by useless people; he’s supposed to be one of those useless people, but lacking the self-awareness to see himself as such. He’s supposed to be just as useless as his friends Gussie Fink-Nottle and Bingo Little. But he didn’t feel like that in this play. (I also wonder if the actor playing him wasn’t a bit too old for the role. Bertie seems like a man in his mid-20s to early 30s, whereas the actor seemed about a decade older than this.) I may be influenced by the fact that I’ve recently started re-watching the ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ television series: I think Hugh Laurie [actor] and Clive Exton [writer] had a great take on the character of Bertie, while this play missed it entirely.
Other wrong moments in the play include the song “Half a Moment” which was far too romantic and sincere for this play, and the song “It’s a Pig!” which added a tone of absurdity (as mentioned before). And the song “What Have You Got To Say, Jeeves” was totally misjudged. Bertie turns on Jeeves, and accuses him of incompetence. That’s out of character for Bertie; he always knew that Jeeves was the smart one.
Ah, Jeeves. Poor Jeeves. He might be the title character in this play, but it doesn’t do him justice.
For one thing, where are his sartorial judgements? A running joke in the stories is that Bertie wants to wear a particular item of clothing, Jeeves advises against it, and Bertie wears it anyway. After the action is over, and Jeeves saves the day, Bertie stops wearing the item. It’s an indirect way of him acknowledging Jeeves’ intelligence and apologising to Jeeves for not paying attention to his advice. That never got a mention in this play.
Then we get to the ending. The denouement was wrong. So very very wrong.
In the stories, Jeeves is subtle, even Machiavellian, in his manoeuvres. He solves problems by manipulating things and people quietly behind the scenes. He gets a letter delivered to the wrong person. He distracts someone with a new romantic interest. He plays on people’s character weaknesses. In this play, he spins a prop fountain to move Cyrus Budge into Bertie’s position. Not only does he break the fourth wall to implement his solution (in the story that Bertie is acting out, the fountain would have been real and not able to be spun), but that solution is very uncharacteristic of Jeeves.
And that’s just the beginning of the bad ending. Suddenly, all three sets of star-crossed lovers couple up, without any resolution. They just... get together. They literally run across stage into each others' arms.
And then… and then…
… the replacement banjo arrives and the play goes totally off the rails.
I have a feeling that Ayckbourn and Lloyd Webber thought they were creating the proverbial good strong finish, after which audiences would forgive them for butchering the Jeeves and Wooster stories. Instead, they were jumping up and down on the corpse of those stories.
Jeeves gives Bertie a silent banjo and tricks him into thinking it’s playing music that everyone else can hear. Then Jeeves suggests a full chorus accompany Bertie – at which point the entire cast comes on stage wearing costumes from 'The Wizard of Oz'!
This is just further evidence that Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber never really understood the nature of the material they were adapting. They put cheap laughs into a play that’s supposed to be a subtle satire on the wastrel upper class of the 1930s. Like I said before, the Jeeves and Wooster stories are a comedy of manners, rather than an open comedy. They’re subtle comedy, rather than broad comedy. You don’t laugh at a Wodehouse story, you smirk knowingly - or, at most, you chuckle quietly. And I don’t think the writers got that at all. They wrote this play to get laughs, rather than smirks.
Also, the use of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is anachronistic. The Jeeves and Wooster stories are set firmly in the milieu of the 1920s and 1930s. In the framing narrative, everyone in the hall listening to Bertie is dressed in the fashions of the 1930s. However, the ‘Wizard of Oz’ movie wasn’t released until 1939. Yes, the books were published 30-40 years earlier, but the costumes used in this play are from the movie versions of the Oz characters. As the most obvious example, one person comes out dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West, complete with green make-up on her face, but the Wicked Witch did not have green skin in the orginal book: that only came from the movie.
The ending is a shambolic climax to a play that didn’t know where it was going to begin with.
Two minor notes to finish up with:
Someone needed to tell the actor playing Cyrus Budge how to pronounce his dialogue. It’s “stomach UPset”, not “stomach upSET” (that is, “upset” used as a noun, not an adjective). And “incandescence” might originally have been a French word, but it’s not pronounced in the French style.
It was a joy to see the actor who plays Paula in ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ as Honoria Glossop in this. She managed to upstage Bertie in the one scene she had with him, and it was a delight to watch.