The name Tony Ring is familiar to many P.G. Wodehouse enthusiasts — it pops up often and in a surprising array of places: journal articles, forewords of new editions, and even theatre programmes. Tony’s books on Wodehouse’s life and work line many of our shelves, and his sparkling presence has enlivened Wodehouse society events around the world. It is an honour and a pleasure to add Plumtopia to his long list of appearances.
Another Centenary to Celebrate
The Sunday Times Magazine for 9 April this year included a four-page article saluting Andrew Lloyd Webber’s extraordinary achievement in having four shows in performance simultaneously on Broadway, though two of them are revivals. It suggests he shares this record with Rodgers and Hammerstein, and states that it hasn’t been done for 60 years.
Well, Rodgers, like Lloyd Webber, was a composer. Hammerstein was a lyricist. The paper overlooked Lloyd Webber’s one-time lyricist Tim Rice, who wrote this in his Introduction to the booklet contained in the 2001 CD The Land Where the Good Songs Go:
I am, I hope, a fairly modest cove, but I must admit I felt fairly gruntled when, in 2000, I could briefly brag about having my lyrics on Broadway in no less than four shows at the same time [including one revival]. Surely this must be a record, I reckoned – certainly for a British lyricist.
So the errors the Sunday Times made are stacking up. First, as they refer to Hammerstein as one of the previous record-holders, they clearly mean to include lyricists. Therefore, Lloyd Webber’s achievement, though amazing, also only equals that of Tim Rice. And when earlier this year his fourth show opened, it was only 17 years since Tim Rice’s achievement, not 60.
But that is not all. Tim Rice went on to add in his remarks that he had mentioned his achievement only because of its relevance to the CD – which was full of songs by one of his literary heroes, P G Wodehouse.
For in 1917 the mighty Plum, lyricist and British to boot, had five shows running simultaneously on Broadway. That achievement reaches its Centenary on November 7, this year.
It is only fair to admit that some of the shows were far less successful than the typical Lloyd Webber and Rice offerings, and that in one in particular he was not the only lyricist. Nevertheless, it is an achievement which should not be overlooked.
In all, Wodehouse contributed lyrics to 25 musicals in one or both of the UK and the USA, and the changes in style and approach which he and Jerome Kern in particular brought to the format of musical comedies smoothed the way for the next major revolution, with the production of such shows as Show Boat. Along with Guy Bolton, who was generally responsible for the first drafts at least of the libretti, they introduced the idea of simpler plots relating to subjects more in keeping with the experience of theatre-goers.
Whereas one of their earliest efforts, Miss Springtime, paid lip-service to the earlier traditions of comic opera, the setting for their first 1917 hit, Have a Heart, was the life of a salesgirl in a retail clothing store. This was followed by Oh, Boy!, which encompassed a modern take on romance, with newlyweds, misunderstandings and a lecherous old judge; and Leave It To Jane, based around American football.Wodehouse absorbed this policy in future collaborations with other composers – the 1926 show Oh, Kay!, written with the Gershwins, had the theme of bootlegging during the prohibition era; while Anything Goes, Cole Porter’s 1934 perpetually popular show, featured escaped criminals. Porter, who had written the lyrics for all the songs in the Broadway production, invited Wodehouse to anglicise a couple of them for London, and he pulled no punches in satirising the greed of certain classes even in times of economic difficulty.
Do the following examples sound like Wodehouse? They were.
The Duke who owns a moated castle
Takes lodgers and makes a parcel
Because he knows
It’s grab and smash today
We want cash today
Get rich quick today
That’s the trick today
And the Great today
Don’t hesitate today
But keep right on their toes
And lend their names, if paid to do it
To anyone’s soap or suet
Or baby clo’s
If you enjoy Wodehouse but have not heard – knowingly – any of his lyrics (the one EVERYBODY has heard without realising it is Bill, originally written for Oh, Lady! Lady!! in 1918, dropped from that show but added, with a little tweaking by Oscar Hammerstein II, to Show Boat in 1926, where it has resided ever since), I recommend that you try to get one of the three CD’s, each with a variety of his lyrics, recorded since 2000.
The Land Where the Good Songs Go
Singers: Hal Cazalet, Sylvia McNair, Lara Cazalet; Pianist: Steven Blier
2001 Harbinger Records HCD 1901
In Our Little Paradise
Singer: Maria Jette; Pianist: Dan Chouinard
2011 Woleseley Recordings
The Siren’s Song
Singer: Maria Jette; Pianist: Dan Chouinard
2004 Woleseley Recordings
For a relatively modern recording of a complete show, try Sitting Pretty (1926), recorded on a double CD in 1990 under the direction of John McGlinn. It was published by New World Records (80387-2).
But let your mind wander a little further. You may not have been aware that Wodehouse was quite such an important lyricist. Perhaps you have not realised that he was an accomplished playwright, as well. He never reached quite the same prominence as with his other activities but, while mentioning impressive achievements, we should not overlook that in December 1928 he had three new plays on the West End stage simultaneously – and that is something not many of even our greatest playwrights can boast.
Perhaps you could suggest some names of those who have matched this achievement – either on the West End or on Broadway?
On 28 January, the British Library celebrated their recent acquisition of the Wodehouse archives with P.G. Wodehouse: A musical celebration. As the title suggests, the event celebrated Wodehouse’s lesser known but important contribution as a musical theatre lyricist, working in collaboration with Guy Bolton, Jerome Kern and others (including George and Ira Gershwin).
I felt privileged to be among those present as singer Hal Cazalet and actress Lara Cazalet (Wodehouse’s great grandchildren) and pianist Stephen Higgins performed songs from the Wodehouse songbook, including: ‘Put Me in My Little Cell’, ‘You Never Knew About Me’, ‘The Enchanted Train’, ‘Oh Gee Oh Joy’, ‘Bill’, and ‘Anything Goes’.
Hal Cazalet also provided a rapt audience with some professional insights into his grandfather’s methods as a lyricist, and his influence on later developments in musical theatre. Hal put forward a convincing argument that Wodehouse’s work as a lyricist not only influenced, but improved Wodehouse’s writing.
A highlight of the day was listening to Sir Edward Cazalet, one of the few people living today who knew ‘Plum’ and Ethel Wodehouse well. Edward’s reminiscences about his grandfather were affectionate and deeply moving – and fans will be touched to learn that Edward still has the pencil his grandfather was holding when he died.
The proceedings were further enhanced by observations from assembled experts, including Wodehouse’s biographer Robert McCrum (Wodehouse: A Life), Sophie Ratcliffe (who edited PG Wodehouse: A Life in Letters) and Tony Ring, whose extensive research and numerous works on Wodehouse include the multi-volume Wodehouse Concordances.
After the formal proceedings, came the infinite pleasures of meeting other Wodehouse lovers – both old friends and new ones. It was wonderful to meet members of the Dutch P.G. Wodehouse Society, who had travelled to London especially for the event, online friends from the Facebook Fans of P.G. Wodehouse group, U.K. Society members, and even a few celebrities. A socially inclined gaggle of us, reluctant for the festivities to end, moved on to a local hostelry where the feast of reason and flow of soul continued long into a splendid Winter evening.
I recommend that you also read Mike Swaddling’s account of the event at the UK Wodehouse Society website (with pictures by Dutch Wodehouse Society President Peter Nieuwenhuizen) via British Library Celebrates Plum the Lyricist (Wodehouse Society report)
On Saturday 28 January 2017, the British Library will be hosting an event, celebrating P.G. Wodehouse’s life and work, including his lesser known contribution to musical theatre.
If you’re in London, this is an opportunity to hear Sir Edward Cazalet share memories of his Grandfather ‘Plum’, and listen to an expert panel (including biographer Robert McCrum). Wodehouse’s grandchildren, the musician Hal Cazalet and actress Lara Cazalet, will also be performing some of Wodehouse’s songs.
Tickets are available from £10-£15 –I’ve got mine!
See the British Library’s event page to register: P G Wodehouse: A Musical Celebration – The British Library
If London’s too far away, there are some excellent recordings of Wodehouse’s songs available. Try The Land Where the Good Songs Go – The Lyrics of P.G. Wodehouse performed by Hal Cazalet and Sylvia McNair, and The Siren’s Song: Wodehouse & Kern on Broadway by Maria Jette and Dan Chouinard.
Happy Christmas, all!
Plumtopia has been a selfish venture from the beginning. It was born from my own dissatisfaction with life, and the search for a better kind of world – that I called Plumtopia. Having never met a fellow Wodehouse fan I presumed I’d have no audience, and consequently wrote entirely to please myself. I do love the sound of my own keyboard. But then something wonderful happened. People started to read, to comment, and even identify with some of the thoughts and feelings I expressed. I may be no closer to finding Plumtopia, but there is comfort in knowing that I’m in dashed good company.
That dashed good company includes Noel Bushnell. Many of the blogs I read are rousing social and political commentaries that cause the blood pressure to rise and the soul to despair (not that I blame writers for reflecting a troubled world). So reading Noel’s aptly titled Wodehouse to the rescue felt like an application of soothing balm. I loved it!
Today, I’m sharing his terrific follow up piece, commemorating the Centenary of P.G. Wodehouse’s collaboration with Guy Bolton, and Jerome Kern. It’s a must for Wodehouse fans.
I presented the following talk to the Ferkytoodlers group of serious thinkers over lunch at the Melbourne Savage Club on Wednesday, 11 November 2015. I intended to post it here with suitable modifications and credits the following weekend but, when I awoke that Saturday morning to news of the dreadful events in Paris overnight, somehow the works of a long dead author and the peaceful world of his imagination seemed less important. It seemed in bad taste to be prattling on about trivial entertainment when people were being murdered.
Of course, the Paris massacre is by no means unique in our world – alas! – and as I brooded on this bleak topic I was reminded of a remark Wodehouse blogger Honoria Plum made in a comment on my first Wodehouse to the rescue piece. She referred to the sentiment behind her blog, Plumtopia, as “looking for snippets of…
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N.T.P. Murphy identifies the Coal Hole in The Strand (in A Wodehouse Handbook, Volume One ) as one of four remaining London pubs mentioned in Wodehouse’s writing. It is mentioned in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’, after long-suffering narrator James Corcoran meets Ukridge at the Gaiety Theatre.
‘Hallo, laddie!’ said Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, genially. ‘When did you get back? I say, I want you to remember this tune, so that you can remind me of it tomorrow, when I’ll be sure to have forgotten it. This is how it goes.’ He poised himself flat-footedly in the surging tide of pedestrians and, shutting his eyes and raising his chin, began to yodel in a loud and dismal tenor. ‘Tumty-tumty-tumty-tum, tum, tum, tum,’ he concluded. ‘And now, old horse, you may lead me across the street to the Coal Hole for a short snifter….’
Ukridge leads Corky down the steps to the cellar bar and, over a couple of tawny ports, outlines his latest scheme of managing a champion boxer. During a recent visit to London, I followed his example, leading my family down the same steps and through the back entrance, immediately next to the Savoy Theatre stage door.
The Coal Hole is in the heart of Wodehouse’s West End. The Savoy Theatre was very much of Wodehouse’s time, opening in October 1881, five days before his birth. It’s owner, theatre impresario and hotelier Richard D’Oyly Carte, was father to Rupert D’Oyly Carte, whom Wodehouse credited as the inspiration for the character of Psmith (the D’Oyly Carte family believe Wodehouse confused Rupert with his brother, Lucas). The Savoy Theatre was home to the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, which the young Wodehouse greatly admired. Wodehouse would later have one of his own plays, Brother Alfred (written with Herbert Westbrook), produced by Lawrence Grossmith at the Savoy in 1913.
The Gaiety Theatre (demolished in 1956) was famous for its musical comedies and chorus girls, including the ‘Gaiety Girls’ who shocked society by marrying into wealth and aristocracy. They were also a great source of material for the young Wodehouse, who worked for The Gaiety as a stand-in lyric writer (see Murphy’s Handbook for juicy details). His writing is bursting with actresses (like Cora ‘Corky’ Pirbright), chorus girls (Sue Brown, Billy Dore) and former stage dames who’ve put their past behind them, like Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Julia.
There are some things a chappie’s mind absolutely refuses to picture, and Aunt Julia singing ‘Rumpty-tiddley-umpty-ay’ is one of them.
(Extricating Young Gussie, 1915)
Wodehouse’s long association with the theatre is most remembered for his contribution as a Broadway lyricist, working in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. For an account of his theatrical career, Wodehouse and Bolton’s 1954 memoir Bring on the Girls is terrific fun.
There are also references in Wodehouse’s fiction that are clearly drawn from his experiences in the theatre. George Bevan, hero of A Damsel in Distress, is a good example.
‘You aren’t George Bevan!’
‘But—Miss Plummer’s voice almost failed her – ‘But I’ve been dancing to your music for years! I’ve got about fifty of your records on the Victrola at home.’
George blushed. However successful a man may be he can never get used to Fame at close range.
‘Why, that trickly thing – you know, in the second act – is the darlingest thing I ever heard. I’m mad about it.’
‘Do you mean the one that goes lumty-lumty-tum, tumty-tumty-tum?’
‘No the one that goes ta-rumty-tum-tum, ta-rumty-tum. You know! The one about Granny dancing the shimmy.’
‘I’m not responsible for the words, you know,’ urged George hastily. ‘These are wished on me by the lyricist.’
‘I think the words are splendid. Although poor popper thinks it’s improper, Granny’s always doing it and nobody can stop her! …’
A Damsel in Distress (1919)
Similar sentiments were politely concealed by my long-suffering family, who stood by the entrance to the Coal Hole as I indulged my habit of talking to strangers — on this occasion, a charmingly odd bird, who genially informed us that he hailed from outer space. I ought to have invoked the Ukridge spirit by inviting him to join our party, before touching him for a fiver, or at the very least a glass of port (poor Corky is touched for two rounds of tawny in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’). Sadly, Ukridge’s big, broad, flexible outlook deserted me at the critical moment.
We took the steps down into the quiet, wood panelled cellar bar. It was easy to imagine this cosy haven attracting thirsty theatre goers, cast and crew. Its intimate atmosphere offers patrons the potential for raucous conversation, intimacy or solitude, according to the mood and occasion. A friendly barmaid directed us to explore the main bar on the floor above, with its entrance directly onto the Strand, abaft the Savoy and (presumably) opposite the old Gaiety. The two bars probably attracted different clientele, but Ukridge was a man who mixed in a wide variety of social circles and I wondered at his choice of the cellar over the grander bar. But as a slightly shabby Colonial, Ukridge’s tastes suited me perfectly well.
My snifter at the Coal Hole was short, but instructive, and it seems a fitting way to toast the end of another year of writing Plumtopia. I’d like to close this final piece for 2015, by raising a glass of the old tawny to you, readers and friends. Thanks for your support and encouragement.
Best wishes to you all for 2016!
What Ho, old beans!
Last week I attended an excellent binge at The Wodehouse Society’s (TWS) 18th convention, Psmith in Pseattle. It was my first TWS convention, and even more psensational than anticipated. So, climb upon my knee, Sonny Boy, and I’ll tell you about it.
As a TWS first timer, I entered the lobby of the impressive Fairmont Olympic Hotel under a cloud –not one of Seattle’s famous v-shaped depressions, but a personal one. Having lived almost exclusively behind a keyboard for the last few years, my people skills are not what they once were. Nor are my trousers, which are let out far more often than I am. So it’s fair to say I was not at my confident best, and beginning to wish I’d stayed under my little rock in Somerset UK. Added to this, I had recklessly agreed to appear as a speaker and was feeling a strong affinity with Bertie Wooster ahead of his infamous talk at Miss Tomlinson’s school for girls.
“Girls,” said Miss Tomlinson, “some of you have already met Mr. Wooster — Mr. Bertram Wooster, and you all, I hope, know him by reputation.” Here, I regret to say, Mr. Wooster gave a hideous, gurgling laugh and, catching Miss Tomlinson’s eye, turned bright scarlet.
in ‘Bertie Changes his Mind’
All that began to change, very quickly. As I traipsed across the lobby, I spied the familiar, well-groomed head of TWS president Karen Shotting rising on the escalator. Recognising her from her photograph, and forgetting that we had never met, I buzzed over to say ‘What Ho’ like a long lost friend. A short while later, I was on back-slapping terms with a substantial gang of Wodehouse experts and enthusiasts, including Tom Smith, Barbara (the dream rabbit) Combs, Elliot Milstein, Bob Raines (soon to be TWS president), Ken Clevenger, and Tony and Elaine Ring. The name Tony Ring is familiar to most Wodehouse enthusiasts and I’d been daunted by the prospect of meeting him, but his effervescent personality put me immediately at ease, and the sparkle in his eye told me that this shindig was going to be fun.
The following morning, I encountered Elin Woodger Murphy (Wooster Sauce editor and all round good egg) sploshing about in the hotel pool. Having already provided me with guidance and support from afar, Elin took me under her wing and, with the fabulous Jean Tilson, we forked our way through some very decent breakfasts at Seattle’s Pike Place market. Later in the lobby of the Fairmont Olympic, I got to meet online friends for the first time — like Vikas Sonak, and David and Katy McGrann — and make new ones, like Katherine Jordan, Eileen Jones and Ninad Wagle (Alpine Joe). From my strategic position by the bar, I was also well-placed to spot debonair newcomers sporting chrysanthemums their in buttonholes [enter John Dawson].
Wodehouse in song
The formalities began on Friday evening with soprano Maria Jette and pianist Dan Chouinard, who performed songs from Wodehouse’s Broadway career and songs mentioned in his work, like My Hero and The Yeoman’s Wedding Song.
A minion came on the stage carrying a table. On this table he placed a framed photograph, and I knew that we were for it. Show Bertram Wooster a table and a framed photograph, and you don’t have to tell him what the upshot is going to be. Muriel Kegley-Bassington stood revealed as a ‘My Hero’ from The Chocolate Soldier addict.
I thought the boys behind the back row behaved with extraordinary dignity and restraint, and their suavity gave me the first faint hope I had had that when my turn came to face the firing quad I might be spared the excesses which I had been anticipating. I would rank ‘My Hero’ next after ‘The ‘Yeoman’s Wedding Song’ as a standee rouser…
in ‘The Mating Season‘
Maria sparkles on the stage like a Wodehouse heroine leapt from the page, and it was a great privilege to hear these songs performed by musicians of such calibre. If you missed out, Maria and Dan’s two CDs of Wodehouse music are available online. Mixing it with the professionals, an enthusiastic Tom Smith (one of our Pseattle hosts) and his associate ‘Percy Pilbeam’ treated us to a rendition of Sonny Boy. No CD recording of this memorable performance has yet been released.
The joy continued on Saturday with riveting talks. If you missed them, they’ll be published in forthcoming editions of Plum Lines, quarterly journal of The Wodehouse Society (US) , not to be confused with Wooster Sauce, quarterly journal of The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) — if you join both societies you get eight lovely journals in the post every year. Each talk was worthy of further discussion, and I took plenty of notes, but for now you’ll have to be content with a summary.
I was riveted from the moment Elliot Milstein drew his first breath, on the subject of Wodehouse’s opening lines, and listening to Ken Clevenger let himself go on the subject of fish was a long-awaited pleasure. During the luncheon break, I made a Skype call to my family in England to gloat that I’d been educated on the difference between orphreys and chasubles by William Scrivener, who was once a pale young curate. Peter Nieuwenhuizen’s talk on Wodehouse in the comics covered new ground (for me at least). Graphic novels are incredibly popular with young readers and the potential for introducing them to Wodehouse in this way is very exciting. Tad Boehmer’s talk on researching Wodehouse took us into the world of special collection libraries (I wanted more!) and Elin Woodger’s topic ‘P.G. Wodehouse, Feminist’ was a topic close to my heart (as readers of Plumtopia will know). For anyone still in doubt about Wodehouse’s appeal to women, Elin confirmed that more women had registered for the convention than men.
John Dawson spoke about the exciting Globe Reclamation Project , an international gang of Wodehouse lovers (Dawson, Ananth Kaitharam, Neil Midkiff, Ian Michaud, Arthur Robinson, Raja Srinivasan and Karen Shotting) who have spent the last two years researching, transcribing and evaluating material written during Wodehouse’s time at the Globe newspaper (1901-1909?), aided and abetted by Wodehouse experts Norman Murphy and Tony Ring. John spoke passionately about his personal quest to find everything Wodehouse wrote, and the hard working collaboration that has provided so much ‘new’ material for all Wodehouse readers to enjoy. The product of their labours is available to read — in two handsomely bound volumes: P.G. Wodehouse in the Globe Newspaper Volumes 1 & 2 . This is a non-profit undertaking, with funds raised used for ongoing research (any surplus will be spent making Wodehouse books available in school libraries). A discount is available to Wodehouse Society members.
Closing the day, and well worth the wait, was Wodehouse’s biographer Robert McCrum. As someone who has delved so deeply into Wodehouse’s life, it was moving to hear him speak of Wodehouse’s withdrawal from his painful war-time experiences into the ‘wonderland’ he created. As McCrum put it, ‘Wodehouse was, in fact, happiest in a kind of artistic solitary confinement.’
In my talk on the modern Wodehouse reader, I commented that many of us read Wodehouse to escape the irksome captivity of modern life, just as Evelyn Waugh predicted.
Mr Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in —
Listening to Robert McCrum, it became clear to me that Wodehouse needed the world he created as much as we do. It was his ‘Plumtopia’. I don’t think I’ve ever felt closer to Wodehouse than I did at that moment.
McCrum has shared his own impressions of Pseattle in this little piece for The Guardian: Americans celebrate PG Wodehouse in Seattle .
Tony Ring entertained us between talks with something cryptically listed on the programme as ‘Mr. Punch’s Spectral Analyses’. These proved to be a selection of ghost stories written by Wodehouse for Punch magazine (1903-1904) — a fitting selection to mark the occasion of Halloween. Here’s a taste:
A groan and a weird phosphorescent gleam at the foot of the bed told that the spectre had arrived, right on the scheduled time as usual. I took no notice. I wished to make the ghost speak first. A ghost hates to have to begin a conversation.
“You might speak to a chap,” said a plaintive voice, at last.
“Ah, you there?” I said. “The family ghost, I presume?”
“The same,” said the Spectre, courteously, seating himself on the bed. “Frightened?”
“Not in the least.”
“Hair not turned white, I suppose?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Then you are the man I have been wanting to meet for the last hundred years. Reasonable; that’s what you are. I tell you, Sir, it hurts a fellow when people gibber at him, as most of your human beings do. Rational conversation becomes impossible.”
MR. PUNCH’S SPECTRAL ANALYSES II.— The Ghost with Social Tastes.
Punch, August 12, 1903
A handsomely printed set of these stories was provided to conference goers, but if you missed out you can read them online at Madame Eulalie’s Rare Plums .
Rummage and Revels
There is still much to be said– about the masked ball, the costumes, the auction, and NEWTS skit — but I have other things to do, and presumably you do too. The one thing I must mention is the rummage sale. Just imagine for a moment that you are in a shop devoted to Wodehouse. There are Wodehouse books, and books about Wodehouse. You can also pick up sheet music, costumes, cow creamers, pictures, bookmarks, badges, bags and all manner of merchandise. No shop of this kind exists, but for two days in October the TWS rummage sale comes close to this Plumtopian ideal.
Added to these pleasures, I continued to make new friends, too many to list, but sitting with Donna Myers for the talks, and between Anita Avery and Tim Richards at dinner were highlights. There was an awkward moment when I met long-time Facebook friend Michael Sheldon in person — as he recognised me, but I couldn’t place him because he looked nothing like his Facebook photo (for all the wrong reasons). He won the ‘Scary Enough to Put a Golfer Off His Stroke’ award for his impersonation of Bill Lister (from Full Moon).
How to join the next binge
The next convention will be in Washington DC — Capital! Capital! — in October 2017. Dates will be confirmed shortly.
It’s an experience I highly recommend. I was welcomed with great kindness, in spite of my expansive trousers and questionable character because, as Anita Avery put it, ‘We Wodehouse fans look after our own.’ And she’s right. After many years spent searching for Plumtopia, I may not have found a place that feels like home, but I have found my people. As Wodehouse put it:
There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.
in ‘Strychnine in the Soup’
‘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, so when I learned that a new stage musical of A Damsel in Distress was being performed at the Chichester Festival Theatre, I 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 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. 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!
I recently came across this lovely review of the latest West End Wodehouse adaptation, ‘Perfect Nonsense’ – written by CATIEWRITES at One Stop Arts.
I’m hoping to get to the show soon too.
Repost: with One Stop Arts closing, I migrated this review here.
In Perfect Nonsense Matthew Macfadyen, Stephen Mangan and Mark Hadfield serve up – on a silver platter – an evening of dulcet-toned, dinner-jacketed fun. Robert and David Goodale provide a fresh and lively take on the much beloved Wodehouse characters Jeeves and Wooster. At the Duke of York’s Theatre.
Gentle reader, you may already realise how difficult a thing it must be to successfully adapt Wodehouse. Though a successful lyricist and playwright, his novels are largely narrative-driven, with dialogue taking a secondary role. This makes for a challenging translation into dramatic form. How impressive the feat, therefore, of not only doing this, but also assigning the full cavalcade of characters from The Code of the Woosters to a cast of just three.
The Goodale brothers have made strengths of these two potential Scylla and Charybdises by presenting us with…
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