Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book and lyrics: Alan Ayckbourn
Directors: Alan Ayckbourn and Nick Morris
For many years, By Jeeves bore the unwanted tag of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s only flop, having run for just one month in 1975 at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London’s West End. In the ‘70s, flops were also a rarity for Alan Ayckbourn, writer of the book and lyrics. Undeterred, the two giants of British theatre persevered and came up with a revised version for the West End and Broadway which met with more success and this is a recording of the American production, shot in a Toronto film studio.
The show is based on the PG Wodehouse comic stories of the dimwitted toff Bertie Wooster and his wise and wily valet Jeeves. There have been adaptations for successful television series which suggest that humour drawn from English aristocratic life in the inter-war years can resonate with contemporary audiences, but, it is the comedy elements which work least well in this version. This could be due largely to a show-within-a-show structure which over-complicates the storytelling and distances the audience from the characters.
Crowds arrives to see Bertie perform a banjo concert, but the banjo goes missing and Jeeves suggests that his master should relate anecdotes which are then performed. An audience, possibly paid extras, is visible for most of the performance, dressed in period costumes and laughing hysterically even at the unfunniest moments. The director’s insistence on cutting to joyous faces repeatedly is a constant irritant. It feels as if we are being prompted to laugh, but, by having our attention drawn away from the antics on stage, we become less likely to do so.
The show crosses the narrative style of a Feydeau farce with The Play that Goes Wrong and the musical influences cross Ivor Novello with Gilbert and Sullivan. It is just too convoluted for the Wodehouse stories, which rely on the simple interplay between the two main characters. To make things worse, Ayckbourn’s book consigns Jeeves to the wings for such lengthy periods that a more apt title for the show might have been Bystander Jeeves.
John Scherer is a hyperactive Bertie, but he is not completely convincing as the ultimate silly ass, and Martin Jarvis is arrogant and aloof as the real boss, Jeeves, judging his knowing glances to the audience to perfection. Ayckbourn, not best known as a lyricist, comes up with plenty of smart rhymes and Lloyd Webber’s score, stripped of the grandiose stylings that have characterised some of his later work, has a pleasing quality. The title song stands out, along with the melodic love duet Half a Moment, sung here by Ian Knauer and Emily Loesser.
Essentially, this is a comedy with songs and, sadly the comedy is botched. It is difficult to judge whether the problems are due to misjudgements in the making of the film or whether they are inherent to the stage show. Lloyd Webber is always reluctant to allow his musicals to die, so maybe we shall get another chance to decide.
Available here until 19.00 on 10 May 2020