It’s often hard to disassociate an acting genius from their best-known roles. Jason Alexander could never really shrug off George Costanza; Matthew Perry is burdened with a sign around his neck bearing the smug face of Chandler Bing, and Ricky Gervais has so far been able to offer only a handful of variations on the David Brent brand.
I admire those actors that attempt to move on from their most famous characters and forge a new path, and it was with this admiration at heart that I decided to approach Jeeves and Wooster with an open mind. You can’t, of course, go wrong with Wodehouse – the foppish aristocrats, the whimsical storylines, the surprisingly biting satire – all of these are as popular and relevant now as they were decades ago.
The gauntlet set down by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in their marvellous mid-nineties adaptation has, in many ways, been bested in this performance. However, despite Robert Webb’s bold and in many ways loveable portrayal of Bertie Wooster, part of me was not convinced that he was right for this role. Yes, Webb may have cornered the market in lazy, immature men living in their own little world, but retrojecting this back into the era of the “bright young things” just doesn’t quite work. His attempts to be the dim-witted aristocrat often lead to his becoming merely a white-tie Jeremy, devoid of much of what Hugh Laurie so famously poured into the role. Nevertheless, Webb pulls off the role admirably – but, with such a big name, one might have expected more. The relationship between Jeeves and Wooster also lacks the camaraderie of Wodehouse’s original vision. With three actors playing a whole host of characters, the close relationship between the two main protagonists lacks some of its classic force amidst all the fast-paced, gag-filled madness taking place before one’s eyes.
In reality, though, much of this is nitpicking. The farcical nature of the play itself is a joy to behold, with characters changing guise as quickly as you can say “What ho!”, whilst the overall staging is done to absolute perfection. The plot itself is almost a sideshow to the prop-based silliness and it complements the performances perfectly. Though Jason Thorpe’s Jeeves lacks the grandeur of Stephen Fry’s portrayal, his depictions of Madeline and Sir Watkin Bassett are magnificently Wodehousian. The same can be said for Christopher Ryan’s portrayal of, among other characters, the fascist Roderick Spode, which gives the character the superhuman yet brittle quality that is as appealing now as it was in Wodehouse’s day.
What is more, you get a sense that the actors are enjoying every minute of their performances, and this spirit is infectious. With stronger casting and a greater focus on the iconic Jeeves and Wooster duo, this adaptation would truly be perfect nonsense.