Hot on the heels of the Blandings centenary in June comes the 100th anniversary of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and Reginald Jeeves, who made their first appearance in the story “Extricating Young Gussie”, published September 1915 in the Saturday Evening Post. The centenary has been commemorated with a flurry of articles –try What ho! Celebrating 100 years of Bertie, Jeeves and Blandings by Aparna Narrain, or Jeeves and the vital oolong in The Economist. But in spite of praise for Wodehouse and his beloved duo –who made their final appearance in 1974’s Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen– this first story, “Extricating Young Gussie“, continues to hide it’s light under a bushel. If indeed that’s what lights do.
In his introduction to the 1967 omnibus The World of Jeeves, Wodehouse laments giving Jeeves just two lines, and no important role in the story:
It was only some time later, when I was going into the strange affair which is related under the title of “The Artistic Career of Corky”, that the man’s qualities dawned upon me. I still blush to think of the off-hand way I treated him at our first encounter.
“Extricating Young Gussie” was the only story omitted from The World of Jeeves omnibus, but readers wanting to assess its merit for themselves can find it in the 1917 short story collection The Man with Two Left Feet. The story begins:
She sprang it on me before breakfast. There in seven words you have a complete character sketch of my Aunt Agatha. I could go on indefinitely about brutality and lack of consideration. I merely say that she routed me out of bed to listen to her painful story somewhere in the small hours. It can’t have been half past eleven when Jeeves, my man, woke me out of the dreamless and broke the news:
‘Mrs Gregson to see you, sir.’
Jeeves makes one more personal appearance:
Jeeves came in with the tea.
‘Jeeves,’ I said, ‘we start for America on Saturday.’
‘Very good, sir,’ he said; ‘which suit will you wear?’
He is referred to in one further passage, when Bertie arrives in New York:
I left Jeeves to get my baggage safely past an aggregation of suspicious-minded pirates who were digging for buried treasures among my new shirts, and drove to Gussie’s hotel, where I requested the squad of gentlemanly clerks behind the desk to produce him.
Many readers, and evidently Wodehouse himself (who often objected to having his early work reprinted), look back on “Extricating Young Gussie” as a poor beginning for this reason. It doesn’t fit the Jeeves and Wooster formula we’ve come to know and love. Some of the centenary commentators (presumably those who’ve not read it) also find fault with it as a story. In my previous piece ‘Getting started with Bertie and Jeeves: a chronological challenge’ I was dismissive too, claiming that ‘… it’s not essential reading for the new Wodehouse reader.’
Dutifully re-reading “Extricating Young Gussie” for the 100th Anniversary, in the ‘knowledge’ that it was not Wodehouse’s best work, I was pleasantly surprised to find it much better than I (mis)remembered. As a story, it is well-crafted, enjoyable and complete without Jeeves. If we are disappointed with it (and I wasn’t) it is only because we’ve developed high expectations of Jeeves through the latter stories. But there is still much to like without him. Bertie’s narrative voice and character (developed via an earlier prototype called Reggie Pepper) are firmly established:
If I ever breakfasted at half past eight I should walk on the Embankment, trying to end it all in a watery grave.
And he’s in excellent form on the subject of Aunt Agatha.
My experience is that when Aunt Agatha wants you to do a thing you do it, or else you find yourself wondering why those fellows in the olden days made such a fuss when they had trouble with the Spanish Inquisition.
The story takes Bertie from London to New York at Aunt Agatha’s insistence, to break the engagement of his cousin Gussie to a vaudeville performer.
…according to Gussie she does something which he describes as a single on the big time. What this degraded performance may be I have not the least notion.
Bertie treats us to a personal tour of New York hotels, bars and theatre. On arrival, he tells us:
New York is a large city conveniently situated on the edge of America, so that you step off the liner right on to it without an effort. You can’t lose your way. You go out of a barn and down some stairs, and there you are, right in among it.
In fact, the whole bally story is so packed with good stuff that when the conscientious blogger (that’s me) starts quoting, it becomes dashed difficult to stop. Rather than continue to cherry-pick the best bits for another twenty seven pages, I urge you to read them in situ, especially if it’s been some years since you encountered it. The older Wodehouse might have found fault with it, but we don’t have to agree with him.
It was rotten. The poor nut had got stage fright so badly that it practically eliminated his voice. He sounded like some far-off echo of the past ‘yodelling’ through a woollen blanket.
Happy Jeeves & Wooster centenary, everyone!
At last, there is a name for it — our condition — Wodehousitis! Another fun piece from the pages of Ashokbhatia.
Originally posted on ashokbhatia:
The foundations of our civilization are quivering. Homo sapiens are faced with a medical crisis of gigantic proportions. There is widespread concern about the pace at which the epidemic of Wodehousitis is spreading across countries and continents. Medical researchers of all hues are twiddling their thumbs, trying to figure out a cure for this dreaded affliction.
Wodehousitis is reported to be a disease which affects all human beings, irrespective of their age, sex, cast, creed or ethnicity. It is said to be highly contagious. A word of mouth is all that is required to lead one to contract it. One merely borrows a work of P G Wodehouse. A cursory perusal of any part of a narrative follows. A lifetime of bondage ensues. Frequent purchases of his books gladden the hearts of many a publisher. When one is not able to lay one’s hands on a particular title, one’s moral…
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For some time I’ve been threatening to write a fictional homage to P.G. Wodehouse – a statement that will induce some of you to sadly shake your heads, for there is a school of thought among Wodehouse lovers that such homages ought not be attempted. Stern words have been written on the subject. Alexandra Petri leaps to mind. She makes a sound case for the prosecution in her review of Sebastian Faulks’ homage, ‘Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is worse than bad fanfiction’ (Washington Post), in which she helpfully outlines the world of fanfiction (yes, it’s one word apparently):
I would submit that three kinds of fanfiction [exist]: the sanctioned published kind (spin-off Bonds, Star Wars sequels, many of these aimed at men), the kind you forget is fanfiction (Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Milton’s Paradise Lost) and the kind the word evokes, written on the Internet largely for and by women between 14 and the designated demographic of “50 Shades of Grey.”
However much I might fancy that my own homage might be classed with Paradise Lost, there’s no escaping the fact that I fit smack-bang in the middle of the latter derided demographic. And if that’s not enough to make the self-respecting female writer of homages think twice (or at least get herself a decent set of false whiskers), here’s what La Petri has to say about the motivation and content of fanfiction:
Fanfiction is motivated by the sense that there is something missing. Generally, what is missing is that not enough of the characters are having explicit sex, or that two of the characters that you wish were having sex with one another are not doing so, although in Wodehouse fanfiction this is not always the case. It’s a tribute, but it’s also about filling in the gaps.
The mind boggles! This was certainly not the sort of homage I had mind.
So, not only is fanfiction frowned on by some Wodehouse fans, it seems the last thing the internet needs is another sad old frump churning out homages. What was I thinking? Presumably I ought to be doing something more age and gender appropriate — whatever that might be. Shoe shopping? Planning a diet and skin care regime to address the signs of aging? Reading the aforementioned 50 Shades of Grey? Well, sneer if you will, but writing Wodehouse homages sounds like a much better way to spend my time.
And I am in good company, with at least two dedicated Wodehouse communities at fanfiction.net: a World of Wodehouse’. group and one dedicated to Jeeves stories. Enjoyable tributes to Wodehouse spring up here at WordPress too: try Wooster and Jeeves, ‘Purloined Snuff Box Retrievers’ by Shashi Kadapa, or Tom Travers’ Travails at Totleigh Towers (an homage to P.G.Wodehouse) from the Chronicles of an Orange-Haired Woman! In published form, I highly recommend The Reminiscences of the Hon. Galahad Threepwood by Wodehouse expert N.T.P Murphy, which combines Murphy’s enjoyable prose style with his research into the period of Gally’s days as a young man about town. And I can’t write this piece without mentioning the latest novel by Wodehouse lover, writer and cricket historian Arunabha Sengupta: Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of the Ashes. It’s not a Wodehouse pastiche, but a great example of the possibilities of quality homage.
Respectful imitation (the sincerest form of flattery), and homage have long been part of literary tradition, just as they are in other art-forms. Many gifted painters have learned their craft by copying old masters; musicians and composers practice their art by replicating music conceived by others. Many pop stars make a substantial living by imitation alone. Unlike these art-forms, it is not possible for writers to earn a living in this way, but there is much that a developing writer can learn from imitating a beloved author. It is also possible for gifted writers with a strong, original idea to successfully and legitimately appropriate another writer’s characters. My favourite example of this is George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series.
If we want Wodehouse’s legacy to extend beyond his own work, as an influence on future writers, we must not close our minds to imitation, adaptation and appropriation — as a starting point. This is particularly important given the lack of an emerging ‘Wodehouse tradition’ in current fiction. As the shortlist for the last Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize demonstrates, between Wodehouse and modern comic writing there is a wide and substantial difference. This isn’t censure — I usually enjoy the books shortlisted. But there is little on offer for Wodehouse fans looking for something new and original in the Wodehouse vein. It’s worth remembering that many modern readers have discovered Wodehouse through later authors like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, both sadly no longer with us. A continuing ‘Wodehouse tradition’ in comic fiction would provide ‘an entry’ to Wodehouse for future readers.
This brings us back to the matter of Sebastian Faulks and his homage. It hasn’t been a universal hit with Wodehouse fans (although we’re not all as scathing as Alexandra Petri). I don’t know that it has brought many new readers to Wodehouse either — certainly no one has cropped up in our Facebook group or any other forum that I follow, claiming to have found Wodehouse through Faulks. But as homages go, it’s a sound effort and I have no objection to Faulks attempting it (you’ll find my review of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells here.), particularly if it makes homages more acceptable — or at least gets the conversation going.
My own homage-in-progress has been an exercise in developing my skills as comic writer by imitating the style of a master. I’ve adopted a similar approach to N.T.P Murphy and G.M Fraser, writing an original piece that avoids Wodehouse’s central characters and settings (there are no Jeeves or Woosters, Psmiths or Emsworths). I think this is where Faulks made his bloomer. We are simply too close to these characters. As imitation Wodehouse, my story has many faults, but as a stepping stone from imitation to original fiction, I have high hopes for it.
I look forward to sharing it with you here in due course, once I’ve finished reading Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of the Ashes.
I’ve been springing from blog to blog this morning, like the chamois of the Alps leaping from crag to crag, but have momentarily ceased leaping in order to share this excellent piece with you. I submit it as further evidence (see previously reblogged pieced for more) that blogs, derided by some as the stuff of fools and amateurs, can be brilliant!
Originally posted on Silver in the Barn:
The extraterrestrial has moved from the gardener to the blogger. If the gardener baffled, the blogger bewilders. Once again the Human Ambassador is summoned.
ET: Why is the blogger frustrated and unhappy?
HA: She feels pressure to remove some favorite things from her writing.
ET: What things?
HA: Words. Rich and lovely words. Words full of texture and life which she has been collecting since childhood. You see, she has been advised that her writing is inaccessible.
ET: Inaccessible? Explain, please.
HA: Not everybody will enjoy or understand her if she uses the words she yearns to. She finds herself therefore practicing a form of literary self-mutilation which is intensely painful.
ET: But this is illogical. What if the intelligence levels vary in the human? They do, don’t they?
HA: Rumor has it. But no blogger wishes to post into a vacuum.
ET: Ah yes, the black hole. I’m familiar with it, you know. But tell me, if a reader encounters a word with…
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It’s time again for my annual birthday binge and, as luck would have it, I have recently happened upon a marvellous brand of gin to celebrate with. And while I don’t usually go in for endorsements at Plumtopia, (it’s not that sort of blog) I couldn’t resist sharing the label with you. It’s so Plum. It also happens to be a fine dry gin.
Cheers, old horse!
It is my pleasure to share this poetic offering from the blog of ‘Idyll Dreams of an Idle Fellow’ in celebration of The Empress of Blandings.
Originally posted on Idyll Dreams of an Idle Fellow:
Honoria chucked a riddle at me
Which Plum creature would I like to be?
The only stipulation I need to watch
Is this denizen of Plumsville must be fond of starch
I wracked the excuse I have for a mind
Stout Plum creations, in order to find
But all those large forms that occurred to me
Were characters I would hate to be
Stinker Pyke….. the name says it all!
Claude Pott… is like creatures that crawl
R Jones ….is the creepiest spy
Bickersdyke….was Red in view and eye
The Duke of Dunstable is a Royal ass!
The efficient Baxter….I will gladly pass
It looks like Plum does not agree,
With those fellow beings, on an eating spree
But no! There’s Beach! He breaks the scale
Buttling, however, is beyond my…
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When you are shut up all the year round in a place like Maiden Eggesford, with nothing to do but wash underclothing and attend Divine Service, you naturally incline to let yourself go a bit at times of festival and holidays.
‘Tried in the Furnace’ (Young Men in Spats)
What Ho! What Ho!
I’m in an effervescent sort of mood today as I’m about to motor to the seaside for a short, much-needed holiday. My journey will take in the Dorset towns of Maiden Newton and Bridport, which the scholars at Madam Eulalie suggest as likely locations for P.G. Wodehouse’s Maiden Eggesford and Bridmouth-on-Sea.
Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps and Pongo Twistleton-Twistleton visit Maiden Eggesford in one of my favourite Wodehouse stories, ‘Tried in the Furnace’, where they both fall in love with the Reverend P.P. Briscoe’s daughter, Angelica. In accordance with her wishes, Barmy reluctantly agrees to take the Village Mothers on their Annual Outing.
The proceedings would appear to have opened in a quiet and orderly manner. Sixteen females of advanced years assembled in a motor coach, and the expedition was seen off from the Vicarage door by the Rev P.P. Briscoe in person. Under his eye, Barmy tells me, the Beauty Chorus was demure and docile. It was a treat to listen to their murmured responses. As nice and respectable a bunch of mothers, Barmy says, as he had ever struck. His only apprehension at this point, he tells me, was lest the afternoon’s proceedings might possibly be a trifle stodgy. He feared a touch of ennui.
He needn’t have worried. There was no ennui.
The human cargo, as I say, had started out in a spirit of demureness and docility. But it was amazing what a difference a mere fifty yards of the high road made to these Mothers. No sooner were they out of sight of the Vicarage than they began to effervesce to an almost unbelievable extent. The first intimation Barmy had that the binge was going to be run on lines other than those which he had anticipated was when a very stout mother in a pink bonnet and a dress covered with bugles suddenly picked off a passing cyclist with a well directed tomato, causing him to skid into a ditch. Upon which, all sixteen Mothers laughed like fiends in hell, and it was plain that they considered that the proceedings had now been formally opened.
Life is short. Holidays are even shorter. I shall be taking the commendable spirit of the mothers of Maiden Eggesford on mine.
Just in case you missed the recent series by Ashokia Bhatia celebrating Wodehouse’s young squirts and pests, his ‘Gallery of Rogue Kids’ is a delicious summary (with links to the previous installments).
Another specimen for the gallery might be ‘Albert the page’ at Belpher Castle in A Damsel in Distress (1919):
‘To one who saw his deep blue eyes and their sweet, pensive expression as they searched the middle distance he seemed like a young angel. How was the watcher to know that the thought behind that far-off gaze was simply a speculation as to whether the bird on the cedar tree was or was not within range of his catapult? ‘
Originally posted on ashokbhatia:
A saunter down the Gallery of Rogue Kids in Plumsville leaves us amazed at the innovative skills, cunning and resource of the children we come across in the works of P G Wodehouse.
Some end up boosting the sagging morale of their fathers. Some treat their step fathers with as much scorn as they can muster at a tender age. They do not spare them while out to collect protection money. Their antics could make or break matrimonial alliances in a jiffy. Souring up business deals comes easy to them. When they burn down cottages, guests are forced to seek shelter in garden sheds.
When seniors devise a Good Conduct award, they leave no stone unturned to prove their mettle. When infatuated with celebrities, they devote their lives to being worthy of their affections. When in the company of clergymen, they end up making them more spiritual, thereby making them…
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Having taken the obligatory swigs of orange juice, it gives me great pleasure to announce the prize winner of the ‘Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party’ competition. Judging was more difficult than expected. I’m only sorry there aren’t enough prizes to go around.
The entries deserves some discussion, beginning with Sally — what a wonderful name for a Wodehouse lover. Sally was quick off the mark in suggesting Cakebread, butler of Shipley Hall in Money in the Bank. A fine answer. Even the name Cakebread implies calories. Those of you who’ve read Money in the Bank will also know it’s an alias. Cakebread isn’t Cakebread. He’s not a real butler either. But he is large.
‘The newcomer, as the sound of his footsteps had suggested, was built on generous lines. In shape, he resembled a pear, reasonably narrow at the top but getting wider and wider all the way down and culminating in a pair of boots of the outsize or violin-case type. Above these great spreading steppes of body there was poised a large and egglike head, the bald dome of which rose like some proud mountain peak from a foothill fringe of straggling hair.”
Money in the Bank
Corky Pirbright supported her nomination of Aunt Dahlia with well chosen quotations that remind us of her stout proportions. Aunt Dahlia is always a favourite among Wodehouse readers, and she looms large as a character in every sense.
“Aunt Dahlia is one of those big, hearty women. She used to go in a lot for hunting, and she generally speaks as if she had just sighted a fox on a hillside half a mile away.”
‘Jeeves and the Song of Songs’ (Very Good Jeeves)
As big personalities go, Aunt Dahlia is a winner, but she is far from being the fattest entrant. Bertie tells us she is a shorter, stockier specimen than Aunt Agatha. Comparisons with Mae West are made. These descriptions paint Dahlia as a large woman of full-figure. I’m not sure that her figure runneth over.
For that, we must turn to Noel Bushnell’s nomination of Lord Bittlesham, uncle of Bingo Little. He was one of the first candidates to spring to my mind when I posed this little contest. Bertie Wooster describes Bittlesham (before his elevation to the peerage, when he is still plain old Mortimer Little), as ‘the fattest man I have ever seen in my life.”
The motto of the Little family was evidently “variety”. Young Bingo is long and thin and hasn’t had a superflous ounce on him since we first met; but the uncle restored the average and a bit over. The hand which grasped mine wrapped it round and enfolded it till I began to wonder if I’d ever get it out without excavating machinery.
Jeeves in the Springtime (The Inimitable Jeeves)
A clear winner you might think, but Susan Jones’ nomination of the Empress of Blandings provided some restless hours of contemplation by the committee (self and cat). The rules do not state that the prize winning fat character must be human, and The Empress has form; she is a triple silver medalist in the fat pigs class at the Shropshire Agricultural show. Being fat is her raison d’être!
Being a pig of substance hasn’t stopped the Empress of Blandings from winning the hearts of Wodehouse readers around the world (she even has a pub named after her). The Empress is a queen among her sex and her species — and what a fine species it is! You wouldn’t catch a pig making uncomplimentary remarks about another pig’s weight, or writing a mildly amusing book that repeatedly humiliates the central fat pig on account of his bulk. Her life is free from such unbecoming censure. Indeed The Empress might arguably be considered a model to us all, living mindfully in the moment, content to simply wallow, to eat, and to expand.
The Empress lived in a bijou residence nor far from the kitchen garden, and when Lord Emsworth arrived at her boudoir she was engaged, as pretty nearly always when you dropped in on her, in hoisting into her vast interior those fifty-seven thousand and eight hundred calories on which Whiffle insists. Monica Simmons, the pig girl, had done her well in the way of barley meal, maize meal, linseed meal, potatoes, and separated buttermilk, and she was digging in and getting hers in a manner calculated to inspire the brightest confidence in the bosoms of her friends and admirers.
Pigs Have Wings
If we all viewed our expanding waistlines — and those of our fellow citizens — with the same ambivalence as the Empress, the world would be a kinder, happier place.
I am compelled to hand the prize to Susan Jones.
Thanks to everyone who contributed. I’m sorry not to have prizes for you all, but if you’re ever passing through Somerset, I should be proud to stand you a pint in a local hostelry.
‘How’s the show going?’
‘It’s a riot. They think it will run two years in London. As far as I can make it out you don’t call it a success in London unless you can take your grandchildren to see the thousandth night.’
A Damsel in Distress (1919)
To celebrate the recent anniversay of the first Blandings novel, I visited the charming town of Chichester to see a new stage musical adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress. This story first appeared as a serial in the ‘Saturday Evening Post’ in 1919, and was published in book form later the same year. During Wodehouse’s lifetime it was adapted as a silent film, a stage-play (by Wodehouse and Ian Hay), and as a 1937 musical starring Fred Astaire with music from George and Ira Gershwin.
Wodehouse’s own career in the theatre spanned some thirty years. He wrote several plays and was a theatre critic for Vanity Fair. His main contribution, however, was as a Broadway lyricist working in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. The theatre world features frequently and is affectionately portrayed in his stories, including A Damsel in Distress.
Wodehouse belonged to the stage as well as the page. He even married into the chorus. So when I learned that a new stage musical of A Damsel in Distress was being performed at the Chichester Festival Theatre, I was delighted and wasted no time in dashing off to Sussex to catch the final performance on June 27th. And boy am I glad I did!
The show has finished it’s run in Chichester, but you can still watch the rehearsal trailer. The story of my visit to Chichester and a glowing review of the show follows below.
My visit to Chichester
The first treat on my visit to Chichester occurred on route. The journey by train from my home in Somerset to Chichester requires roughly three hours, and about a dozen changes, but redeems itself by passing through Wodehouse’s former home town of Emsworth. As N.T.P Murphy confirms in The P G Wodehouse Miscellany (2015), Emsworth is the ‘real’ location of Belpher village, where A Damsel in Distress is set. For anyone who has visited this former oyster fishing town (as I did in 2013) Wodehouse’s depiction of Belpher is clearly the same place.
For years Belpher oysters had been the mainstay of gay supper parties at the Savoy, the Carlton and Romano’s. Dukes doted on them; chorus girls wept if they were not on the bill of fare. And then, in an evil hour, somebody discovered that what made the Belpher oyster so particularly plump and succulent was the fact that it breakfasted, lunched and dined almost entirely on the local sewage. There is but a thin line ever between popular homage and and execration. We see it in the case of politicians, generals and prize-fighters; and oysters are no exception to the rule. There was a typhoid scare — quite a passing and unjustified scare, but strong enough to do its deadly work; and almost overnight Belpher passed from a place of flourishing industry to the sleepy by-the-world-forgotten spot which it was when George Bevan discovered it. The shallow water is still there; the mud is still there; even the oyster-beds are still there; but not the oysters nor the little world of activity which had sprung up around them.
A Damsel in Distress
Its proximity to Emsworth makes nearby Chichester a fitting place to stage this musical revival of A Damsel in Distress. It is also close to Goodwood Racecourse, where so many Wodehouse characters (notably Bingo Little) have lost a bundle.
Chichester itself is an attractive, prosperous looking town, with an attractive, prosperous looking populace and an air of genteel distinction. As someone who is neither attractive nor prosperous, I never felt more of a blot on the landscape as I did waddling down Chichester’s main street. Even the town’s elderly inhabitants — women old enough to have earned the right to elasticated waists and comfortable shoes — could be seen teetering precariously under half-a-ton of jewellery, on heels that would give me vertigo. It seems the good ladies of Chichester do not let themselves go – they cling on.
Inspecting myself critically in shop-windows, I felt increasingly like a worm who has gotten above itself and crawled into Princess Charlotte’s salade nicoise. So I popped into a local “outfitters to the gentry” in the faint hope that it’s never too late to start making an effort. I don’t know what I expected to find — some tasteful trousers or a tweed skirt. What I got was a shock. It seems the gentry and I are discrepant on matters of taste as well as oofiness. Whereas my inclination is to cover the baggage with cloth, the modern Lady seems to prefer the sort of costume that looks as if it’s been designed by the Gynecological Society to allow curbside examinations.
Leaving empty-handed, I proceeded to the Chichester Festival Theatre in a slightly nervous state (overtaking several septuagenarians in stilettos on the way), but my first sight of the theatre put me at ease. Of a stylish 1960s design and situated opposite an expansive lawn, it reminded me of the Adelaide Festival Theatre, where I saw my first performances as a child and was later married in the rotunda on the lawn. The day was warm (in Chichester, not Adelaide) and the doors had been thrown open, bringing a refreshing breeze indoors. It was the sort of day Wodehouse himself might have written about, and I quickly felt at home among the throng of theatre-goers, beaming in happy anticipation.
Review of A Damsel in Distress
A Damsel in Distress did not disappoint. From the moment the chorus tapped out the opening number — Things Are Looking Up! — I knew I was in the presence of something special. I believe Rob Ashford, the show’s American director and choreographer is some sort of big-wig in the business — and by golly he oughta be! It’s difficult to imagine how this adaptation could have been more perfect.
This adaptation compares favourably to both the original novel and the Astaire musical. George Bevan (played by Richard Fleeshman) is an American composer overseeing the introduction his latest Broadway hit to the London stage. He falls in love with Lady Maud Marshmoreton (Summer Strallen), whose family mistake him for the man she loves. They want her to marry Reggie Byng (Richard Dempsey), who in turn loves Alice Keggs (Melle Stewart), who is Lord Marshmoreton’s secretary and a niece of Keggs of the Butler. Meanwhile George’s friend in the chorus, Billy Dore (Sally Ann Triplett), mistakes Lord Marshmoreton (the wonderful Nicholas Farrell) for a gardener, and captures his heart.
The unpleasantness of class snobbery pervades the piece — as it does throughout Wodehouse’s work. I am always bewildered by the popular misconception of Wodehouse as a preserver of class distinction, when his plots repeatedly smash both class and trans-Atlantic cultural barriers. In A Damsel in Distress, class snobbery is embodied in character of Lady Caroline Byng, who is Maud’s Aunt and Reggie’s step-mother. She wants them to marry, and strongly objects to George Bevan — member of the lower-classes, an American, and presumably poor — as a suitor. In the original book Aunt Caroline is supported by Maud’s brother, the repulsive Lord Belpher. In this adaptation she is the lone representative of class snobbery, wonderfully played by Isla Blair who is everything a stage Aunt and comedy villain ought to be.
This musical doesn’t skimp on matters below stairs either. Lead by Keggs the butler (Desmond Barrit), french chef Pierre (David Roberts) and Dorcas the undercook (Chloe Hart), the staff at Belpher castle plot to undermine Lady Caroline and support the amiable Lord Marshmoreton’s efforts to assert himself as head of the family. Their big song and dance number in the kitchen — Stiff Upper Lip steals the show — I’ve never heard this song sound so good. My daughter and I sang it all the way back to the station, and are still humming the tune a week later.
The entire cast and orchestra were superb. Richard Fleeshman was the perfect leading man as George Bevan, with matinee idol looks and a voice that makes you want to close your eyes and drink through your ears. Sally Ann Triplett sparkled as Billie Dore, who is the more appealing heroine in Wodehouse’s original book also. Lady Maud is one of Wodehouse’s least endearing heroines. As the distant maiden in castle — the damsel in distress of the title — George mostly admires her from a distance, whereas we encounter her close-up. The shallowness of her character (especially in the final scenes of the book) is uncomfortably clear, although the reader is content to feel George’s pleasure when she agrees to marry him. Summer Strallen makes Maud as appealing as she can, and sings beautifully.
The one jarring moment for me came when Reggie Byng made his first appearance in a flurry of ‘What Ho’s, ‘I Say!’s and ‘Tootle Pip!’s — looking and sounding like the sort of blithering idiot Wodehouse is famous for. Indeed for millions of people, creating upper-class twits is all Wodehouse is famous for. It seems no modern adaptation of his work can do without one. I’m not suggesting Reggie ought to have entered solemnly, quoting Proust, but I find the overplayed English twit caricature rather tiresome. But I’m clearly in a minority, and Reggie’s appearance at Chichester was a notable hit with the audience. Eventually I too was won over by Richard Dempsey in the role. His rendition of ‘I’m a poached egg without a piece of toast’ would have melted the sternest critic’s heart.
That’s the power of great musical comedy, and Wodehouse. They can transport us momentarily from our woes, and even our prejudices, to a state of carefree joy — something the multi-million dollar popular psychology business is still working at. They may be dismissed as ‘light entertainment’ by an overprivileged few, who perhaps have fewer woes to escape than the rest of us, but if you’re an out-of-place worm in the nicoise of life, the benefits are well worth the price of admission.
I haven’t said nearly enough about the show — the impressive sets, the costumes, the wonderful quality of the music, dancing and choreography (Pierre and Dorcas were a treat). Nor the pleasure of seeing Nicholas Farrell, who I’ve long admired since he appeared in my favourite television show (Drop the Dead Donkey). I could say so much more, but if I’m to post this review in the same decade in which I saw the bally thing, I really must draw the line somewhere.
If A Damsel in Distress plays anywhere near you, be sure to catch it!