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What ho! Edward Duke takes charge of Jeeves at Harvard

JEEVES TAKES CHARGE

Written by P. G. Wodehouse.

Adapted by and starring

Edward Duke.

Directed by Gillian Lynne.

Hasty Pudding Theatre.

Through December 17.

By MARK ROBERTS

"W

HAT HO! WHAT HO! WHAT HO!" Bertram Wooster, debonair boulevardier and self-confessed life and soul of the Drones Club annual smoking concert, bounds onto the stage and greets us in the jovial style to which fans of P. G. Wodehouse's novels are accustomed.

Edward Duke, the British actor whose one-man show based on some of Wodehouse's Jeeves stories is currently playing at the Hasty Pudding, swiftly establishes Bertie as an affable goof, goggle-eyed in his monocle, and with a wonderfully inane bay of a laugh that tails off into a cretinous chortle. Bertie is to be our part-time narrator for the evening, recounting tales of his brushes with an array of such immortal characters as the fearsome Aunt Dahlia and the hopelessly soppy Madeline Bassett, who thinks that rabbits are gnomes in disguise ("it's perfect rot, of course," Bertie reassures us), all sketched in turn by Duke.

For those of you unfamiliar with what Evelyn Waugh described as Wodehouse's "idyllic world, [which] can never stale," Bertie Wooster is a young gentleman of leisure, "a pretty total dead loss during the daylight hours" and not much better in evening dress, recently down from Oxford and making his bumbling way in the world of an imaginary English past. His life takes him between his West End flat and the Drones, the club at which he and other like-minded young "eggs" gather and the country homes of various eccentric relatives in the further flung counties. It is a world of vicarage tea parties, of young men in spats, and of "frightful scrapes." In short, it's the England that probably never existed but that half the world fondly imagines still does. Over it all presides the imperturbable figure of Jeeves, Bertie's valet and guardian angel, the perfect gentleman's gentleman. Jeeves' superior intellect, unshakeable calm and impeccable taste are regularly required to rescue young Bertram from the entanglements in which his eager incompetence frequently land him.

Wodehouse is a master of comic writing, incomparable in his ability to coin a memorable phrase. Edward Duke has translated this into a one man performance, splitting the activity between narration and live action. As narrator, either in the character of Bertie or, in the middle section of the show, of Jeeves, he has the chance to reproduce some of this descriptive prose, whereas the live action allows him to use some of the hilarious dialogue in a variety of roles.

In all, Duke plays nine different characters in the course of the evening, sometimes, when there is a conversation, switching rapidly back and forth between them. It demands considerable technical skill and physical endurance to bring this off over two hours of fast-talking activity, and for the most part he succeeds admirably. Duke has remarkable physical control, transforming his stance and flexible face so thoroughly from one character to the next that, for the most part, one has no sense of the stage carrying only a single actor. He has large, expressive hands, which flap hopelessly as Bertie squirms before an enraged Madeline Bassett, or else jab and clutch back fiercely as the furious "woman God forgot." Even at the most basic level, of the speed with which he can change between scenes from a white tie and tails into a full three-piece suit in hideous houndstooth check, Duke's professionalism and stagecraft are evident.

The evening starts in the Drones Club, where Bertie introduces us to some of his peers, including a fellow who looks "as though he'd been poured into his suit and forgot to say when," and proceeds to the story of Jeeves' arrival in Bertie's life. Jeeves comes "like a healing zephyr" to the prostrate Bertie who is recovering from the excesses of the night before, to administer a potent pick-me-up of raw egg and Worcestershire Sauce. Duke is at his best as Bertie, who both charms us as raconteur, half-aware of his own inadequacies, and appalls us with his cretinous gibbering. Bertie is alive, and his adventures enthuse us. Jeeves is harder to make convincing, for he almost by definition gives nothing away. In Duke's portrayal he is stern in the Lurch manner -- sepulchral of voice and lofty of demeanor -- but this is almost too archetypal a butler. The second story of the evening gives us a chance to get closer to him, when we hear the story (from Jeeves' point of view) of Bertie's attempt to say a few inspiring words to the young ladies of a girls' boarding school near Brighton. Once again Bertie was hilarious, but the brief appearance of the headmistress suffered from a monotony in the pitch of the voice. Duke always seemed to hit the same top note with his screech.

The opening of the second act with Aunt Dahlia enlisting Bertie's help in her local f^ete with his tap dance routine lagged a little, with the grating aunt's voice failing to catch light in the way Bertie's did, but the scene soon built up enormous comic momentum. The second half went from strength to strength, and any doubts about the performance were forgotten by the climax, a superb set piece in which the newt-fancying Gussie Fink-Nottle, aflame with Dutch courage, is called on to give the prizes away at a high school graduation day. Gussie, with buck teeth and a voice that owed something to Bluebottle of the Goons, was Duke's most memorable creation next to Bertie. The prize giving showed Duke's skills at their finest -- physical clowning, masterful timing -- and of course a superb text to work with -- "Oh Bertie," he quavered as Gussie, "I wish I was a male newt."

For those who know Wodehouse's work, Jeeves Takes Charge will not disappoint. For those who don't yet, it will surely encourage them to try it. It is an impressive and often hilarious performance.