The tiny Landor pub theatre in Clapham seems an unusual location for the revival of a piece by theatrical heavyweights Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn.
But then, By Jeeves doesn’t really seem like a musical by Lloyd Webber and Ayckbourn. Based on the Jeeves and Wooster stories by PG Wodehouse, it is a period piece packed with jolly japes and exaggerated RP, containing characters named Stiffy and Stinker and references to jam and tea. Light and fluffy, it has none of the heart-wrenching angst that normally underpins an Ayckbourn comedy, while the only Lloyd Webber-esque sweeping ballads in his mostly upbeat period score are delivered, as the piece requires, with tongues firmly in cheeks.
Reworked from an earlier version, the 1996 premiere of By Jeeves found success at Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough and transferred to the West End for a respectable run. This new production by director Nick Bagnall packs a cast of 10 and a four-piece live band onto the intimate Landor theatre stage to revive Wooster’s world of bunting and Morris dancing.
The plot, it has to be said, is dizzyingly complicated but actually doesn’t matter a great deal. It is enough to say that foppish man-about-town Wooster (Kevin Trainor), waiting for a new banjo to entertain his guests, enacts a story of mistaken identity and romantic entanglements set in the English countryside. After much silliness and japery we learn how ever-loyal manservant Jeeves (Paul M Meston) extracted his employer from a delicate situation.
The narrated nature of the show works well at the Landor, allowing it to use the limitations of its small stage for comic effect. The woods are denoted by a cast member wearing a branch on her head, a wicker laundry basket becomes a car, a maze is depicted by only a gate (and a hefty dose of imagination). This doesn’t always work, but results in occasional flashes of inspiration; Wooster clambering through a window with a pig mask brings several chuckles.
The cast tackle the piece with vigour, throwing themselves into choreographer Andrew Wright’s tap dancing routines with gusto. One particular scene in which kitchen implements – rolling pins, wooden spoons – are used as percussion is particularly successful.
If at times the capers get a little exhausting, they are off-set nicely by the standout song, the ballad Half A Moment, with Brendan Cull (Stinker) and Jenni Maitland (Stiffy) showing strong comic timing. It is indicative of a relentlessly chirpy show that wouldn’t be serious even if it was hit over the head with a rolling pin.