Forty years after Stephen Joseph set the project in motion, the theatre in the round which now bears his name has moved into an impressive permanent home in Scarborough. The town's former Odeon cinema has been converted into a twin-theatre/cinema/restaurant complex, with its original Art Deco design being preserved and restored as far as possible – even the carpeting has been rewoven to the original 1930s pattern. Artistic director Alan Ayckbourn, having personally donated £400,000 towards the conversion, has chosen to open the main 400-seat auditorium with an uncannily modest musical.
The original 1975 incarnation of Jeeves had a great deal to be modest about. Its West End run closed within a month, having led one critic to advocate setting fire to the manager's trousers, and it remains Andrew Lloyd Webber's only flop. It is understandable that Sir Andrew should want to remove this blot on his copybook by revisiting the scene of the earlier crime; that the 1996 version – with an entirely new book by Ayckbourn, only three of the original songs remaining and an added preposition in the title – works on its own terms is due almost entirely to Mr A's rigorous work in limiting what those terms should be.
Never have I seen a show that takes such consistent pains to play down any great expectations which an audience might bring to it: By Jeeves is absolutely determined that it should be seen as no more than a bit of fluff, "a diversionary entertainment". Ayckbourn has framed the main story in a ramshackle church-hall concert, as an anecdote told by Bertie Wooster while he awaits the arrival of a banjo for his scheduled recital. Thus, the playwright has access to the comic potential of supposedly ad hoc props, costumes and performers, and is enabled to let Bertie and Jeeves argue about the telling of the story (although the word "narrative" crops up several times too often in these exchanges). Even Jeeves's final coup to resolve matters comes in the form of a staging gag.
Likewise, many of the musical numbers are either punctuated by asides from Bertie or completely halted several times by unfolding events. This may or may not have been Lloyd Webber's original vision, but it is a playful, knowing piece of work, and if Ayckbourn occasionally nods (would B. Wooster really be bright enough to remark, as matters take a turn for the catastrophic, "This is getting like the fourth act of Medea, Jeeves"?), the atmosphere of cheerful tomfoolery renders such lapses forgivable.
The tale itself is a country-house Jeeves and Wooster portmanteau affair featuring almost all of Bertie's Drones Club chums and previous romantic entanglements, with only his fearsome aunts missing from the fray. Chaps assume each other's identities at breakneck speed, young popsies fall for the wrong chaps, the blustering Sir Watkyn Bassett grows fearfully bewildered and Jeeves saves the day by orchestrating Bertie's pretended burglary in a ridiculous mask – leading to the deliciously daft notion of a big suspense number entitled "It's A Pig". Lloyd Webber's score, arranged for a five-piece band, is as modest as the show itself, being pleasant if largely undistinguished: only a few of the tunes attempt a period feel, and during the main romantic duet "Half A Moment" a musical phrase from his earlier song "Memory" repeatedly pokes its head up like a startled meerkat.
The only noteworthy flaws in performance are from Diana Morrison, whose bat-squeaking Madeline Bassett is spot-on though wearing, and Malcolm Sinclair, who ably captures Jeeves's manner as cartooned by Ayckbourn, but cannot quite find an appropriate voice for the great man. As Bertie, Steven Pacey makes an excellent amiable, good-hearted chump, flashing cheerily inane grins at what he thinks are his good bits and generally winning an already well-disposed audience over even further.
A note of caution, however: come the almost inevitable London transfer, nothing would kill the determinedly unassuming charm of By Jeeves as thoroughly as plonking it in a theatre of any appreciable size whatever. It needs either a smallish venue or a Stephen Daldry-style customisation of the space, or it will simply flounder. In its Stephen Joseph home, the show's reception is best summed up in Ayckbourn's own verdict: "It's light, it's fun and it's silly."
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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