Wodehouse In Wonderland: a one-man wonder

Images: Pamela Raith

From the first chords of the Jazz music that heralded the opening of the show ‘Wodehouse In Wonderland’ at Bromley’s Churchill Theatre last night, and on until 11th March, a perfect note was struck that actor Robert Daws, performing as the late, great lyricist and literary humourist PG ‘Plum’ Wodehouse, sustained throughout.

It was a remarkable one man show. The scene was Wodehouse’s study in his home in the US, with Wodehouse by then a prolific, highly successful author in his older age. The subject was Wodehouse’s life story, sampling some of the iconic characters that he penned, including Jeeves, the incomparable gentleman’s personal gentleman; the good-hearted Bertie Wooster and his motley crew of fellow Drones Club members; aunts a-plenty; Lord Emsworth; and the porcine Empress of Blandings.

The words, fittingly for the story of an author responsible for some of the best comic prose in all of English literature, were scripted with a delightful lightness of touch by playwright William Humble. The direction of Robin Herford must have brought the best from Robert Daws, an actor with a fine track record, including playing Tuppy Glossop in TV’s Jeeves and Wooster alongside Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. The stagecraft he employed to exploit the full space of the stage was sublime: sitting, leaning, reading, singing, typing, declaiming, and interacting with some very clever noises off. A moveable feast of acting.

The form of the play, too, worked very well. It was, in essence, a mix of anecdote and life history, punctuated by occasional songs. I sat with reviewers from Entertainment Focus (their review is here), who agreed that Robert’s singing voice was outstanding. Along the way, we were treated to Daws’ Wodehouse recounting letters to his daughter Leonora, and a spiky interview with an American journalist looking for scandal. It was all rather well woven together. Robert Daws soon had the audience in his hand, as well as a martini or two. Much of the storytelling and reflections were as light and innocent as Wodehouse’s novels. However, in the second half the play went on to explore Wodehouse’s internment by the German military in World War Two, the greatest mistake of his life, and its sad repercussions. In this, I was unexpectedly reminded of Kerrin Roberts moving performance as the mistreated codebreaker Alan Turing in ‘Breaking The Code’ at Bromley Little Theatre. There was a touch of that same sense of a man rendered an injustice, a venomous response that marred his life.

Robert Daws is clearly a born raconteur, and he is so suited to this part. I had forgotten most of what I knew of Wodehouse’s life from reading his autobiography, ‘Wodehouse On Wodehouse’, and it was lovely to be so thoroughly reminded, with many a highlight depicted. Wodehouse’s ‘empire orphan’ upbringing, the Rise of the Aunts, his eventual daily routine, his singular appreciation of Shakespeare, these and other details added a pleasing depth to the show.

Wodehouse, who, as the play suggested (almost) ‘avoided real life altogether’, may well have been rather less charismatic in person than Robert Daws played him. Thus when Daws read scenes from a very small handful of Wodehouse’s books, the characters sparkled, brought to life even more than they had appeared in my own imagination when I first read them.

One of the songs of the show was ‘You’re the Tops!’ It would have been easy to deliver this show as a showcase for Wodehouse’s great characters and to lose the character of Wodehouse himself. Or to turn it into a laughter-fest sending up Wodehouse, his habits, and his quite narrow jolly writing tone and his unchanging (or timeless) characters. Neither occurred here. For Wodehouse fans, and lovers of a genuinely interesting story well told, this show is The Tops! 

Our Bromley Buzz podcast interview with Robert Daws can be heard here, and tickets are available here.

Darren, and Jacqui, Weale, 10th March 2023

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