Cahoots Theatre Company presents Robert Daws in Wodehouse In Wonderland, York Theatre Royal
WE know Jeeves And Wooster, Gussie Fink-Nottle and Blandings Castle, but how well do we know their creator, the comic novelist Pelham Grenville Wodehouse? Not as well, on the evidence of William Humble’s fascinating, funny yet forthright play.
Plum, as he was known in a conflation of his first name’s two syllables, is found in 1950s’ exile, at his typewriter as ever, in his New York State home on Long Island, the flowers in full bloom beyond his study window.
He has never returned to England since the end of the war and, to his sadness, will never do so after his besmirching as a “traitor” for his Berlin broadcasts when interred in 1941. He, along with fellow vilified exile Charlie Chaplin, would be knighted in the 1975 New Year’s Honours List at the age of 93, dying a month later.
As the Guardian reported, both humorists were “unexpectedly and very bemusedly involved in unpleasant political controversy at the height of their fame”.
Humble’s play goes into forensic detail in Act Two of what Wodehouse called his “great shaming”, but this is a beautifully balanced play with many, many ups, in the manner of those exquisitely written novels so full of English character, counterbalanced by stories of his “Empire orphan” childhood, his daughter Leonora (“Snorkles”), and those bitter attacks by the wartime media.
Played by the debonair Robert Daws, in his Plum job as a Wodehouse devotee from his RADA days, later cast as Tubby Glossop in four series of Fry and Laurie’s Jeeves & Wooster, Plum is working on his latest jaunty Jeeves instalment as Humble’s play opens.
Humble will track Wodehouse’s daily routine of writing, taking breakfast to his wife Ethel, walking the Pekingese dogs Wonder and Squeaky, lunch, more writing, savouring cocktails and enjoying American soap operas (better than their British counterparts, reckons Plum).
His day’s progress, the tip-tap rhythms of the typewriter, will be interrupted by his wife, his daughter, the dogs’ barking and now a would-be biographer, who appears to have had a humour bypass.
His meetings and phonecalls, however, trigger Plum into discussing those light-hearted radio broadcasts that met with the opprobrium of wartime Minister of Information Duff Cooper despite being devoid of both propaganda and politics. Only Evelyn Waugh, fellow observer of English ways, caught Plum’s tone as it was intended, seeking to be be funny as comedians are wont to do.
Interwoven into the routines of a man at happiest when left alone to write, are Wodehouse’s stories of first “meeting” the sanguine Jeeves and his younger days as a lyricist working with Guy Bolton, Ivor Novello, Jerome Kern et al, leading to Daws showing off his singing chops with jovial aplomb on several occasions.
Featuring too are Plum’s reflections on writing his books “like musical comedies without music”; the English characteristic of needing to knock down those who find success, and the consequences of seeing his overseas parents only twice from the age of two in 15 years, his time divided between a contented education at Dulwich School and in the care of his aunts, 15 of them no less, hence their profusion in his novels, where they are subject to his mischievous streak.
Under the immaculate direction of Robin (Woman In Black) Herford, Daws’s performance captures both light and dark, with an ear for accents, a song in his heart, a mastery of emotion in a devastating revelation in Act Two, and an omnipresent love of Wodehouse and his literary wonderland. Praise too for Lee Newby’s set and costume design, evoking both the Fifties’ American setting and its English occupant and the earlier times of which Wodehouse wrote.
For all his vilification in the war years and its knock-on effect, Humble’s Wodehouse bears no bitterness, believing that life will always be better for humour. As Daws steps forward at the finale, Plum ponders, wouldn’t it be nice if we could just be nice to each other, like Lord Emsworth feeding Empress, his beloved black Berkshire sow. He has a point.
Take a PG tip: on such a wet day, look on the bright side by heading indoors to be enlightened and enchanted alike by Wodehouse, Humble and Daws, a terrific triumvirate in Cahoots’ eloquent one-man drama.
REMEMBER the character of Tubby Glossop – “like a bulldog that’s just had its dinner snitched” – in the Fry and Laurie television series of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster?
He was played by actor and crime writer Robert Daws, whose fascination with comic novelist, short-story writer, lyricist and playwright “Plum” Wodehouse has led him to star in the British premiere of William Humble’s play Wodehouse In Wonderland, presented by Cahoots Theatre Company on tour at York Theatre Royal from April 20 to 22.
“It all started with my own interest in Plum,” says Robert, 63. “When I was at RADA, I was given a copy of Right Ho, Jeeves by Tom Wilkinson, who was directing at the academy. I read it and loved it, little knowing that a few years later I’d be starring in a wonderful TV adaptation.
“I’ve since become a bit of an aficionado, and a few years ago I went to see Perfect Nonsense, a Jeeves and Wooster play in the West End starring Stephen Mangan and Matthew Macfadyen. Afterwards I was talking to some fellow Wodehouse enthusiasts, and it made me realise just how big an interest there in his work, but how little I knew about the man himself.”
Whereupon Robert read a few biographies and learned more of his extraordinary life, not least his early career as a Broadway lyricist. “I called my friend Bill Humble and said, ‘do you think there might be a play about this?’, and he replied that he’d just finished working on a screenplay about Wodehouse’s life, so I’d called at just the right time. That was around five years ago.”
Directed by Robin Herford, best known for his West End production and many tours of Woman In Black, Wodehouse In Wonderland is set in the writer’s New York State home in the 1950s. Plum, as he is known to family and friends, is working on Wooster’s latest adventure, only to be interrupted by a young would-be biographer, his adored wife, daughter Snorkles and his two Pekingese dogs.
Based on the life and writings of Wodehouse, Humble’s play finds Daws’s Wodehouse sharing stories of how Jeeves entered his life, how he became addicted to American soap operas and why he wrote books that were “like musical comedies without music”.
He sings songs composed by Broadway legends Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Ivor Novello with lyrics written by Wodehouse himself, and entertains the audience with characters such as gentlemen’s gentleman Wooster, Jeeves, Lord Emsworth, Gussie Fink-Norrie and Madeline Bassett.
Yet a darker story lies beneath the fizzing fun, when the biographer’s visit prompts Wodehouse to reflect on his past in Humble’s play in the second half. “By now in his 70s, Plum was living on Long Island in the 1950s because of the ‘great shaming’, as he called it, of his experiences as an internee during the war, when the Germans manipulated him into making what became known as the ‘Berlin broadcasts’, which was used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes,” says Robert.
“One of the themes of the play is his naivety, but he was fully investigated by MI6, who completely exonerated him of any treachery, but that report was kept from him all his life.
“The columnist Cassandra really put the knife into him in the Daily Mail, but in the 1950s he was a regular visitor to the USA, and who would he have lunch with but P. G. Wodehouse!”
Wodehouse wrote a diary of this period called Wodehouse In Wonderland. “The title is appropriate because that’s very much how he spent his life. He needed to create and live in this fantasy world and was never happier than when he was writing. Sadly, the diary was never found, and he never returned to England after the war,” says Robert.
“Things conspired to work against Plum living in England for many years, so there are deeply psychological reasons behind that decision, but as he grew older, he was also incredibly reclusive, which, like most things goes back to his childhood, where his father was a judge in Hong Kong and his mother was a distant figure.
“It was the Victorian way of a certain class to send children away, so at the age of two he was shipped over to England to be looked after by his aunts. Fifteen of them. He didn’t see his parents for years. He was an ‘Empire orphan’.”
His elder brother went to up to Oxford University, and Plum, excelling at the classics and sport, gained a place too. “But his father said, ‘we can’t afford to send you there. You have to work’. He became a bank clerk in the City of London, which he hated,” says Robert.
“He would often be told off because he would write at night, which at all times is a tough gig, and he would turn up at work in his shirt and trousers over his pyjamas. But what he had was this extraordinary work ethic throughout his life. When he died alone in hospital on Long Island, he had his latest manuscript with him on his deathbed. He was still working to the very end.”
On the lighter side, what of Plum’s prowess as a lyricist? “As a young man, he went to America to make his living writing anything anyone wanted him to write, including theatre reviews, and then worked with American writer Guy Bolton, a lifelong friend, as a lyricist, using the American vernacular on shows that absolutely took New York by storm,” says Robert.
“Andrew Lloyd Webber said of him, if Plum had never written any Jeeves and Wooster stories, he would still be considered one of the fathers of the American musical.
“He had the extraordinarily good fortune to work with Jerome Kern and write with Cole Porter, both Gershwins and Oscar Peterson too. I always think it’s quite strange that this man we now associate with such quintessentially English characters was in those days better known for his work on Broadway.
“So I perform some of these songs during the show and I’m really enjoying the chance to sing again. I used to do a lot of musicals when I was starting out, and even won a musical award at RADA, though I soon realised my dancing skills weren’t up to it!”
Playing Wodehouse is very much Robert’s “take on him, rather than an impersonation”. “When you’re playing a character people know, like Churchill for example, people know what they looked and sounded like, so there’s a certain expectation, but with Wodehouse that isn’t the case,” he reasons of a challenge he describes as a labour of love, where he has “become inordinately fond of Plum”.
“There isn’t actually much footage of him, and people always said that in reality he was a very reticent and shy figure. Despite creating these extraordinary, larger-than-life characters, he didn’t really socialise and generally liked to disappear into his imagination. So to portray him as he was would not necessarily work. I’ve realised I need to let the words and music speak for themselves, in order to give a more rounded portrayal of the man himself.
“What runs throughout the story is how people were amazed by his benign nature, his sweetness of nature, which wasn’t fake, and how he had a childlike outlook on life.”
Wodehouse In Wonderland paints a fuller picture of the writer at work. “George Orwell, an unlikely friend but a friend nonetheless, said of him, ‘people are envious of you because you live in this beautiful bubble where you get up in the morning, have breakfast, write in the morning, take the dogs for a walk, back home in time for a drink with wife Ethel, and then work in the evening,” says Robert. “But that’s one of the reasons he was so prolific, wanting to be left alone to write.
“Occasionally you bump into people who say, ‘oh, he just wrote about toffs and we have enough of them already’, but to some extent his world was just as fantastical as Terry Pratchett’s world.
“In India, where I hope to take the show, he is so popular as a writer who’s considered to be subversive, because his characters are to be laughed at, not with. Just look at what he’s commenting on underneath the top layer of wit because, in a way, he was an outcast from that charmed circle.”
As he prepares for the “big treat” of playing York Theatre Royal for the first time, Robert’s thoughts return to playing Wodehouse’s Tubby Glossop in four TV series of Jeeves & Wooster from 1990 to 1993. “It’s one of those moments in your career where you think, ‘oh, I’m so glad that happened’. The most overwhelming feeling is that fate worked to advantage,” he says.
“I’d read the books since my 20s, and I was the fourth person to be cast. I was so happy! It was a wonderful four years, with Clive Exton [the series creator and writer] even sticking Tubby into stories that he wasn’t in originally.
“Over the years. I’ve worked with four actors who’ve played Bertie Wooster: Ian Carmichael, Richard Briers, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Mangan.”
Now he is playing the Wooster source, P. G. Wodehouse.
Robert Daws in Wodehouse In Wonderland, York Theatre Royal, April 20 to 22, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Did you know?
ROBERT Daws is the author of the best-selling Rock detective novels set in Gibraltar and Spain. He co-presents the popular crime fiction podcast Partners In Crime.
“Writing uses a lot of the same creative muscles that you use as an actor,” he says. “Early in my career I spent five years at Theatre Royal Stratford East, where we did a lot of different plays and variety nights, including lots of improvisation. This has stood me in good stead as a writer, because there’s an awful lot of improvisation involved.
“Certainly, all the work I’ve done over the years creating characters has been really helpful as well. I suppose in a way my writing has become my own little wonderland.”
Did you know too?
DIRECTOR Robin Herford and actor Robert Daws have known each other for many years. Robin first directed Robert as Dr Watson in The Secret Of Sherlock Holmes at the Duchess Theatre, London, and latterly when he played the lead in a national tour of Alan Ayckbourn’s Ten Times Table. A shared passion for P. G. Wodehouse makes Wodehouse In Wonderland an irresistible project for them both.