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 head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist