The currently-touring Wodehouse in Wonderland follows some of the life of P.G. Wodehouse, known to his friends as ‘Plum’. The first act is jolly enough—there are plenty of quick quips and one-liners to get the audience chuckling, as well as a song or two. The casting of the show is particularly special—a one-man affair, Robert Daws plays Wodehouse. Well-versed fans of Wodehouse’s works—in particular the Jeeves & Wooster stories—may recognise Daws from the 1990s Fry and Laurie adaptation of the books, in which Daws played Tuppy Glossop, friend of Bertie Wooster and member of the Drones Club. Daws’ enjoyment is palpable—he comes most alive when discussing the Jeeves novels and his impressions of the gentleman’s gentleman are impeccable, particularly one in which Wodehouse recalls almost collaborating with Kleenex on promotional material until he imagined Jeeves’ disapproval at such a thing.
Wodehouse’s constant clashes with an American sent to write his biography make for an entertaining first act. The second act, however, tips into altogether different territory, which is perhaps where the show speeds up a little too much, as if to compensate for the slightly-plodding pace of the first half. Wodehouse begins to recount to his biographer the ‘great shame’ he experienced in the 1940s—namely, when he was interned by the Germans as a prisoner of war and, upon release in 1941, when asked if he would like to do a radio broadcast from Berlin to reach his readers in America, agreed.
His intention was simply to correspond with all the readers who had sent him anxious letters during his imprisonment to know how he was. However, Wodehouse didn’t account for the fact that broadcasting from Berlin in Nazi Germany, as a free man, would make many believe he was in fact a traitor and collaborator with them. In addition, his blasé tone in the broadcasts—a comedic account of his imprisonment—left a bad taste in the mouths of some. Friends he had known for years turned against him, and once he was able to he returned to America, shunning his homeland of the UK.
This is all recounted in a rather long monologue that feels like an overly heavy-handed overture on the effects of cancel culture, rounded off by a line at the end of the show about being nice to one another that, in all honesty, just felt a bit too preachy. Although Wodehouse was incorrectly accused of being a traitor, the play allows him to be ‘woe is me’ about it to the point of irritation. It is hard to feel very sorry for a man facing the consequences of a naïve choice freely made. He was imprisoned for only a small part of the war and had an experience that, compared to the great suffering of many imprisoned, was a comfortable one.
The show’s main stumbling block, then, is that it doesn’t seem to have much of an idea of what it wants to be. It is part comedic Wodehouse romp and part monologue on 1940s cancel culture—but it struggles to weave these aspects into one portrait of Wodehouse’s life. They are instead neatly parcelled up—the first aspect into Act One, the second into Act Two. The tone shift is a little bit jarring—particularly after fictional-Wodehouse’s insistence that there are no deep emotions in his plays, it seems a little odd to insert them here. There is a feeling of forced sympathy for a character your patience is running thin with.
There are moments of true feeling, however—large parts of the show allow Wodehouse to speak to the audience under the guise of dictating a letter to his daughter, affectionately known as ‘Snorkles’. This is an effective way of bringing the audience closer to the actor—it feels as though he is waiting for an answer from us that isn’t going to come. This part of the monologue feels a little awkward and halting, but it works. In addition, the music is aptly-chosen, reminiscent of the Jeeves and Wooster instrumental opening. Daws provides some musical talent of his own that is bound to make the audience nostalgic and fond.
There are, then, memorable moments in a play that had much more potential to fulfil. Wodehouse’s humour is very physical and lively, and the show didn’t quite match this energy.
Words by Casey Langton
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