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.

Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder