The inaugural Playbill Preview Tour of London spent the morning of the fourth day of our trip exploring the labyrinthine backstage area of the Royal National Theatre complex on the other side of the Thames.
After the red meat and potatoes of Julius Caesar and Martin Guerre, the group was now ready for some dessert, and got it Thursday evening in the form of Andrew Lloyd Webber's fluffy new chamber musical, By Jeeves, based on the P.G. Wodehouse stories. The musical opened at the Duke of York's Theatre in London July 2 and is scheduled to open in the U.S. in October at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House.
The trip to the National Theatre, just 10 minutes walk across Waterloo Bridge from our hotel, allowed members of the trip to walk the Olivier, Lyttleton and Cottesloe stages, step around freshly built and drying scenery in he set shop, peer into (currently unoccupied) dressing rooms, and negotiate the same backstage passageways as Britain's greatest stars. It was acclaimed the best tour we'd taken so far.
Most spent the afternoon shopping and matinee-going. Not all London theatres have have matinees on just Wednesdays and Saturdays as in the U.S.; some schedule them for Thursday and Friday as well. Among others, the group took in the off-West End The Compleat Shakespeare (Abridged) and the Degas exhibit in town.
We had the best dinner so far, at the Pelican on St. Martin's Lane, where the owner gave us a royal wecome and took photos of the inaugural group to hang in his restaurant. Afterward we retired to the Duke of York's Theatre to see By Jeeves a reworking of the 1975 musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn. With just 12 in the cast, minimal scenery and just 12 songs, the musical drew the most strongly mixed response of the trip so far, with reactions ranging from laughter and cheers to near-walkouts. A tally of the group resulted in six thumbs-up, four mixed, six thumbs-down and three not present at the voting. Two felt it was the worst ticket of the trip; two felt it was the best.
.There was general agreement, however, that the song "Half a Moment" was the hit of the show, and that the daffy cast was well-chosen and gave their all.
In view of our previous day's argument over the line "Et tu, Brute" from Julius Caesar, the group was delighted when Bertie Wooster in a moment of duress, turns and says "Et tu, Jeeves?" The group was also entertained to pass a pedestrian with a t-shirt reading "I am Martin Guerre."
Here are selections from our opinions:
Judy Robbins of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.:
It's so English, I don't know how anyone who's not English is going to get it.
Debbie Reynolds of Houston, TX:
I really liked the play. I loved the British humor, even though I don't usually like British comedy.
Milton Demel of Studio City, CA:
I hated it. I thought it was garbage. I was crawling out of my skin. I liked the music. Whenever a song came along, I perked up. But I considered leaving in the intermission. I will say that it's got an incredible cast. They worked so hard. It's easy to see they [the cast] are having fun with it. And it did get a little better in the second act. But I'd bet money it will never go in New York.
Frances Lamburini of Queens, N.Y.:
I second that. It's going to flop [in the U.S.].
Sara Fox of New York City:
I enjoyed it. I really had a lot of fun. It was so silly, even stupid in parts. But I don't care what anybody says, I had a good laugh and a good time. I was uncomfortably hot, but you got used to it after a while.
Robert Hatem of New York City:
The only smile I managed was when the cow came out [during "Travel Hopefully"]. Jeeves is hardly in it. This guy [Steven Pacey, as Bertie Wooster] reminds me of Hugh Grant. Some of the music is very pleasant, but I have trouble understanding the lyrics. The second act is much better than the first. That's when you hear all the rollicking tunes. But Jeeves was hardly in it. I watch the "Wodehouse Playhouse" [on TV] each week, and Jeeves is a much stronger character.
Kenneth Robbins of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.:
The second act is much stronger than the first. Minute by minute, as the show went on, I went from not liking it, to liking it, to liking it very much.
Sam Reynolds of Houston, TX:
I know it's a "British" comedy, but I missed the joke. It might have been a big hit in the '40s. I don't remember a song coming out it it, except "By Jeeves." If it hadn't had any slapstick it would've been hard for an American audience.
Daniel Gister of Reistertown, MD:
The comedy was fast-moving, which was good. I liked the interplay between the various actors.
Rhoda Klein of New York City:
Thumbs down! Though I might have liked it better if the theatre had been air-conditioned.
After the show, the entire group retired to The Salisbury, the legendary theatre pub on St. Martin's Lane for a cooling off in a private room wallpapered with decades of theatre posters. Manager Patricia Lee greeted the group personally, but everyone was too interested in shellacking or defending By Jeeves, and talking about plans for the remaining two full days.
For the balance of our trip, we'll be touring the construction site where a working recreation of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre is nearly complete, a post-mortem of the scheduled shows with critic and author Sheridan Morley, and then, splitting up to see a variety of West End shows, including Jolson at the Victoria Palace Theatre, A Little Night Music at the National Theatre and Passion at the Queen's Theatre. Check in Sunday night for our reviews, plus a rundown of the trip's highlights.
The second Playbill Preview Tour to London, Nov. 17-24, is booking quickly. For details, jump London in November, or call Beverly Markman or Roberta Cohen at (800) 554-7513.