Mark Heap as Jeeves, Robert Webb as Bertie Wooster and Mark Hadfield as Seppings. Photo: Craig Sugden
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Pure, unadulterated entertainment: Jeeves and Wooster on the stage

Robert Webb and Mark Heap take their turn at portraying P G Wodehouse’s beloved toff and his omniscient butler.

Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense
Duke of York’s Theatre

Sometimes it’s the smallest things that get the biggest laughs. When Robert Webb, who has just taken over as Bertie Wooster in the West End smash Perfect Nonsense, opens the second act by making a rubber duck shoot up out of his bathwater, twice, it’s impossible not to giggle. We might know him better as the sardonic, flippant Jez in Peep Show, but there is no trace of that here. His goofy grin is infectious.

Webb and his co-star Mark Heap have just taken over as Wooster and Jeeves from Stephen Mangan and Matthew Macfadyen, who originated the roles for this production last year. Perfect Nonsense, which recently won the Olivier award for best new comedy, is a dream show for comic actors seeking a wider audience (as both Webb and Heap must be, as they each try and build on cult TV hits Peep Show and Green Wing). Thanks to the enduring popularity of the source material – P G Wodehouse’s novel The Code of the Woosters has been adapted numerous times for radio and television – and the familiarity of the characters, the audience is well-disposed to this new incarnation from the moment the curtain rises on Webb in a red velvet smoking jacket, all posh guffaws and irresistible eye-rolls.

Webb is following the footsteps of other famous Woosters here – Richard Briers and Hugh Laurie both excelled in the part – as well as being a direct replacement for Mangan. The latter might have a slightly surer stage presence, but Webb acquits himself well in a show that relies heavily on physical comedy. He bounces around, diving to catch silver cow-creamers, almost-falling out of windows, and leaping onto mantelpieces as if pratfalls, rather than sardonic sketches, were his stock-in-trade.

Do trousers matter? Mark Heap and Robert Webb in action.
Photo: Craig Sugden

Mark Heap, as Jeeves, does a good deal of the hard work in this play-within-a-play (the conceit is that Bertie has hired out a West End theatre to share an amusing story with the public), shifting scenery and playing aunts, magistrates, fiancés and newt-fanciers as required. He suffers slightly in the comparison with Matthew Macfadyen, who brought a certain dry, wry sensibility to the part that Heap hasn’t quite captured. Since Macfadyen’s most well-known roles have been serious – as Tom in Spooks, or Mr Darcy in the film version of Pride and Prejudice – it’s just that much funnier to see him with a lampshade on his head. Anyone who saw Heap as Dr Alan Statham in Green Wing, doing a semi-obscene dance in a hospital corridor, won’t find his “newt-rutting” gestures quite as shocking as they are intended to be.

The Goodale Brothers, who did this new stage adaptation, made an excellent call when they chose to keep as much of Wodehouse’s original dialogue and exposition as possible. Much of the joy of this play resides in exchanges such as this one, lifted straight from the novel:

“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks
oneself: ‘Do trousers matter?’”

“The mood will pass, sir.”

Or when Roderick Spode, nascent dictator and leader of a group called the “Black Shorts”, is described as having “an eye that could open an oyster at fifty paces”. Mark Hadfield, the third cast member who dashes about, fitting in many of the minor parts, is superb as the Hitler-esque Spode. When Hadfield pops up inside the eight-foot puppet that represents this absurd yet menacing figure, he gets a laugh before he’s even got his wig on straight.

As I noted in my review for theartsdesk.com of the original cast, this play revives a very old theatrical tradition by ending with a dance. It’s arguably the best moment in the whole production – Webb throws his heart and soul into the exuberant charleston, while Heap attempts to execute the dance while keeping Jeeves’ dignity intact. So much comedy is bittersweet that it’s a real treat just to experience some pure, joyful entertainment for a change.

Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 20 September

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Attention millennials: we have reached Peak Unicorn

There is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation.

If you have been on the internet recently, you may have noticed the unicorns. Social media has become saturated with pastel pinks and blues, sprinkled with glitter and transformed into a land of magical rainbows and prancing, mystical creatures. For adults.

Young women post pictures of themselves with lilac-and-turquoise-tinted “unicorn hair”, or holographic “unicorn nails”, and put up photographs of rainbow-coloured and gold-leafed “unicorn toast”. The beauty industry has something of a unicorn problem, with brands issuing identikit ranges of shimmery, unicorn-themed cosmetics and perfumes with names such as “I Heart Unicorns”. When it comes to millennial commodity capitalism, no depth of unicorn-related paraphernalia has been left unplumbed. You can buy sparkle-laced gin advertised as “Unicorn Tears”, body glitter branded as “Unicorn Snot”, and even a lipstick tinted with “unicorn blood” – which is presumably aimed at the niche market for Goth unicorns.

In the past few weeks, the world has officially reached peak unicorn, following Starbucks’s limited-edition release of the selfie-friendly, Instagram-baiting “Unicorn Frappuccino”. Despite being described by tasters as “the worst drink I have ever purchased in my life”, and “like a combination of the topical fluoride used by dental hygienists and metallic sludge”, pictures of it were shared on Instagram more than 150,000 times in the single week it was available.

But why do unicorns have such seemingly inexhaustible popularity among millennials – many of whom, despite entering their thirties, show no signs of slowing their appetite for a pre-teen aesthetic of prancing ponies and mythical fantasy? Certainly, there is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia at play here – though it seems to be a nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation. There is something terribly earnest about the language of unicorns; its vocabulary of rainbows and smiles is too embarrassing to sustain genuine irony.

The sickly-sweet copy issued by brands starts to feel unhinged, after a while. (A £28 body “Wish Wash” that tells you “Unicorns are awesome. I am awesome. Therefore I am a unicorn”, anyone? That’s not how logic works and you know it.)

God knows there’s room for a bit of crayon-coloured twee in our dark geopolitical times. And if my generation is to be denied any conventional markers of adulthood, in the absence of affordable homes or secure employment, I’ll cover myself in glitter and subsist on a diet of pink lattes and sugar sprinkles as much as I please. But in our post-truth age of Trump, Brexit, Twitter trolls and the rise of the alt right, advertising that maniacally shouts that “UNICORNS ARE REAL! UNICORNS ARE REAL!” has a flavour of deranged escapism.

Yet maybe there is an element of knowingness in countering the rising tide of global hate and uncertainty with a pretend sparkly magic horse. Perhaps unicorns are a particularly fitting spirit animal for Generation Snowflake – the epithet given to young people who have failed to grow out of their instincts for sensitivity and niceness. Eighties and Nineties kids were raised on cartoons such as My Little Pony, which offered anti-bullying messages and a model of female strength based on empathy and collaboration. By identifying with creatures such as horses, dolphins and unicorns, young girls can express their own power and explore ideas of femininity and fantasy away from the male gaze.

And perhaps these childhood associations have shaped the collective millennial psyche. For the generation that is progressively dismantling the old gender boundaries, unicorn aesthetics aren’t just for women. On Instagram, lumbersexual hipsters show off their glitter beards, while celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Jared Leto rock pastel-tinted dye jobs. Increasingly, young people of all genders are reclaiming styles once dismissed as irretrievably girly – as seen in the present media obsession with “millennial pink”. Pink is now performing the double feat of being both the unabashedly female colour of fourth-wave feminism and the androgynous shade of modern gender fluidity.

Let’s be frank: there are limits to this kind of ideological utopianism. The popularity of unicorn aesthetics and millennial pink is due in no small part to one simple thing: they are eye-catchingly appealing on social media. In an age dominated by visual media, bubblegum shades have the power to catch our attention.

Starbucks knows this. The company has explicitly acknowledged that the Unicorn Frappuccino was “inspired” by social media, knowing well that Instagram users would rush to capture images of the drink and thus giving a spike to their publicity free of charge.

But predictably, with the vagaries of the fashion cycle, Starbucks has killed the unicorn’s cool. The moment that corporate chains latch on to a trend is the moment that trend begins its spiral towards the end – or towards the bargain basement from which it will be redeemed only once it has reached peak naff. Unicorns are now “basic” – the term the internet has given to the rung on the cultural capital ladder that sits between hipster and ignominy.

Yet already the next mythical creature is waiting in the wings for us to pass the time until the inevitable heat death of the universe. If Instagram hashtags are anything to go by, the trend-setters are all about mermaids now.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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