By Jeeves | Genesian Theatre

By Jeeves | Genesian TheatreTucked away on Kent Street, just west of Town Hall, is one of Australia's oldest theatre companies, in one of Australia's oldest buildings, the church of St John The Evangelist, dating from 1868. Dimmed by the years and the dusky scars of air pollution, dwarfed by the concrete-and-glass towers that are the bane of Paul Keating's and Prince Charles' life, this history brings with it a little something extra, in ambience. But you don't need that when you've two tried-and-tested doyens of theatre, at the writing end, in two nights of the realm, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber & Sir Alan Ayckbourn.

Ayckbourn's book and lyrics for By Jeeves (originally, I believe, just Jeeves) are, as one might expect, based on (Sir) Pelham Grenville (P.G.) Wodehouse's much-adored Jeeves stories. (With all those knights, there ought to be a round-table.) What's, perhaps, not so well-known about PGW is, apart from being arguably England's greatest & most enduring comic novelist, he was also a gifted playwright and lyricist. In fact, he wrote, or co-wrote some 15 plays and an astonishing 250 lyrics, for around 30 musical comedies. Indeed, he worked  with the likes of Porter (Anything Goes, no less), Kern & Gershwin.

AA seems to be similarly versatile. But, unlike Wodehouse, he wasn't born into the prewar uppercrust both came to parody, somewhere between affectionately and scathingly. Known now as writer and director, he paid his dues in stage management and other behind-the-curtain roles.

It's all too easy to revile ALW for having become part-and-parcel of the establishment parodied by the above and, more generally, as a very tall poppy, but, if one is to remove such considerations as barely-concealed envy and over-exposure from the equation, his body of work is extraordinary, by any measure. Jeeves fits in, historically, I believe, somewhere between his early successes (with, most notably, Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat), outrageous, slightly controversial success (with JC Superstar) and hyper-successes, from Cats, onwards. As such, it's unpretentious fun, wholly sympathetic to its text; not at all imbued with the loftiness of, say Phantom.

It was originally produced at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (England), where Ayckbourn has prevailed, as artistic director, for donkey's ages. The Genesian Theatre has done a fine job of retaining its spirit and bringing it to comedic life. Directed by Roger Gimblett, yet another prolific and versatile theatrician, it very much sings along, literally, under the tight baton of musical director, Tim Carter. Debbie Smith, too, has done a good, down-to-earth job of choreographing what I assume to be, for the most part, non-dancers. Set design, by Owen Gimblett, sung too, with charming humour; indeed, the deliberate naffness of props the script inspires is, fortuitously, highly-compatible with a restricted budget. Costume design, too, was judiciously exaggerated, just enough to embellish the caricature of the roles being teased-out: plaudits to Sue Carveth & Lissa Knight. Michael J. Schell's lighting and sound design neatly completed a fine suite of craft.

All the above ensured a strong firmament on which to build a production. And none of the players disappointed: it was really down to who stood out the most. Favourites were hard to pick. Nick Hunter, in the co-lead as banjoist Bertie Wooster, was just the ticket. Richard Cotter, as well-known for direction as acting, presented a wholly plausible Jeeves. The very youthful Rowan Witt, as Gussie Fink-Nottle, demonstrated his poise, performance skills and particular promise as a candidate for music theatre productions to come, having both the physical and vocal qualities and quantities to excel. Jacqui Robson compensated effectively, via her command of the stage, for what she seriously lacks in the singing department. Leon Waserman obviously worked at finding just the right pitch and timbre for his Bingo Little. Rod Stewart, as clueless magistrate Sir Watkyn Bassett, showed us just how satisfying an old-school trouper can be. Melanie McLeod, as his daughter Madeline, thanks to Shirley Temple curls, an exceedingly pretty gown and sweet vocalisations, was perfectly-pitched. Emily Twemlow's Stiffy Byng and Adam Majsay's Harold 'Stinker' Pinker were, perhaps, a little shorter on dramatic sting, but more than made-up with a sensational duet. Majsay's voice, especially, is one to really watch. Well, listen to. His is the stuff Idols should be made of. Another standout was Daniel Felkai's Cyrus Budge III, Jnr. A lumbering, insensitive American guest, played with all the deliberate hamfistedness demanded.

If this is what a theatre company can do, after 64 years doing it, I can't wait to see what it does next.

Genesian Theatre presents
By Jeeves
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber | Book and lyrics by Alan Ayckbourn

Venue: Genesian Theatre, 420 Kent St Sydney
Dates: 18th October - 6th December 2008
Times: Friday and Saturday nights at 8pm; Sunday matinee at 4.30pm

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