As Matthew Macfadyen and Stephen Mangan celebrate their first week playing one of literature’s most famous comedy pairings, writer Robert Goodale explains how, alongside his similarly skilled wordsmith brother David, the siblings first came to fall in love with a hapless toff and disparaging valet, and why, almost a 100 years since their conception, they have brought them to life on stage.
My first taste of P G Wodehouse came in my early twenties when my twin brother and a mutual friend of ours used to quote PGW phrases, sentences and extracts back and forth at each other during late night drinking sessions. I was never sure whether it was the whisky, the Wodehouse or a combination of the two that was making me laugh hysterically, but for years my experience of the great man was confined to the blurry hours of the night.
It was only when looking for material for a one man show that I picked up a Jeeves and Wooster book in the cold light of day and realised what a comic genius he really was. I also discovered that some of his best material was being filtered through the mouthpiece of Bertie Wooster. Here was a storyteller, raconteur and Vaudevillian performer who was capable of charming any group of people into submission. Not only was he a perfect front man but the characters who peopled his world were gloriously eccentric, mad and passionate, all with their bizarre and peculiar obsessions. 20 pages into Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves and I knew that I had my one man show.
The idea of indulging in a world where the loss of an objet d’art from your silver collection was perceived as being a matter of life and death could not have been more appealing. So I went ahead and performed a couple of one man shows based on this material at the Edinburgh Festival.
The whole experience was enough to make me want to do something else up at the Fringe. I asked my older brother David if he’d write something with me and we subsequently embarked on our first proper collaboration. We decided to create a character based on an older actress – who I had worked with – who ran a completely chaotic touring company. What emerged was Margot Sessions, a self-absorbed individual whose success in a slightly tacky side of the industry was on the wane and who was eager to do a bit of self-promotion. She recreated her living room in a venue at the Gilded Balloon, gave a masterclass in acting and generally got lost in her own world. As we had advertised it as though it was for real, the audience members tended to consist either of people who took the thing completely seriously and started asking questions or students who stuffed handkerchiefs into their mouths to stop themselves from laughing.
It was whilst going through this totally surreal experience that a producer called David Johnson suggested that my brother and I come up with a new Jeeves show to put on at [Edinburgh’s] The Assembly Rooms. We adapted The Code Of The Woosters and found ourselves working with DJ [David Johnson] and Mark Goucher (who co-produced) the following year.
We then went off on our separate ways; David to work as a documentary maker and I to pursue an acting career. 20 years later, we were approached by Mark Goucher to create another Wodehouse show, but on a larger scale. Having two or three people in the cast allowed us to explore the true potential of what would really happen if Bertie Wooster did attempt to hire a theatre and put on a show. Inevitably, despite his bravura, optimism and confidence that he could do it all on his own, things would fall apart very quickly and Jeeves would have to save the day.
We passed ‘Perfect Nonsense’ on to Mark Goucher, did a reading of it for him and in turn the Wodehouse Estate, who gave it their blessing. The wonderfully inventive comedy director Sean Foley was then brought on board.
Although I had absolutely nothing to do with Stephen Mangan’s or Matthew Macfadyen’s involvement, I did suggest the two of them during the casting process. Having worked with them both at the Royal Shakespeare Company, witnessed their extraordinary comic abilities and observed how well they got on together, there was no question in my mind as to how perfect a pairing they could be. So I was thrilled when they were approached and their performances have reached a height that no one could have predicted.
Stephen is playing Bertie to perfection as an utterly charming simpleton with a touch of the vaudevillian front man that PGW had intended. Matthew is completely inscrutable as Jeeves and hilarious and extraordinary as all the other characters that he in turn has to play. It’s fascinating watching an actor allow his characters to evolve through raw instinct rather than just pulling their stock‐in‐trade out of the bag.
What has been most gratifying about the whole project is that all of the above – along with Mark Hadfield (who plays the third character terrifically) – are completely in tune with the conceit of the show and a lot of what was discovered in the rehearsal room has found its way into the script. The piece, even now it is up and running, continues to flourish and blossom on a daily basis. A true process of evolution, we like to think.