By Jeeves, by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn, is a musical based on the stories of P.G. Wodehouse. It begins as if the audience are attending a church fundraising concert, starring Bertie Wooster, but when his banjo goes missing, Jeeves suggests that Bertie entertain the crowd with some anecdotes.
This device allows Bertie to use a similar narrative voice to the original stories, with interjections and several deus ex machina from Jeeves. Characters break into song at appropriate moments, backed by the onstage band, with songs like Banjo Boy, That Was Nearly Us, It’s a Pig! and The Hallo Song. Unfortunately the resulting show falls short of what Andrew Lloyd Weber, Alan Ayckbourn and P.G. Wodehouse are capable of separately.
The first ten minutes dragged unbearably, and it was only half an hour in, with the song Love’s Maze (and its charge of mad Morris dancers), that any sort of excitement built in the audience. Half of What Have You Got To Say, Jeeves? was engagingly catchy, but the song just faded away, and the big number It’s a Pig! felt uninventive and repetitive.
The songs, though cheerful and upbeat, simply put across one idea each, with the verses sloping gently towards the payoff in the chorus. There was none of the arresting wordplay or wit that makes the audience strain to catch every line of a verse by Cole Porter, for example. A couple of funny rhymes like “sitting there anticipating…/ breath eagerly baiting” were about the highest points. A couple of jazz pastiches (Banjo Boy and What Have You Got To Say, Jeeves?) got the audience interested, but the music relaxed too often into pleasantly melodic quasi-ballad.
The best moments in By Jeeves were down to Robin Armstrong as Bertie Wooster. The way he waggled his right elbow in the opening number False Start let any observer know that this was the bloke to keep an eye on, and he didn’t disappoint. His impression of a dressage horse in Act II was the single most crumplingly hilarious thing on the stage that night.
Robin Armstrong’s rubber-limbed energy was well partnered with Jeffrey Holland’s stately bearing as Jeeves, and between them they dominated the stage. Madeline Joseph (as Stiffy Bing), Joanna Hickman (as Madeline Bassett) and Laura Checkley (as Honoria Glossop) were sexily scheming, gooey and hearty in their turns, but the script of By Jeeves hadn’t left them with much to do apart from explain the plot and play their stereotypes.
By Jeeves is gently entertaining, but requires a lot of goodwill to make it anything more. There is about half of a really good show in there somewhere, but it’s spread so thinly that the intervening minutes tend to drag. A pleasant evening, but all three of its contributors are brilliant in their field, and By Jeeves feels like a waste of their talents.