Robert Webb: ‘I just had such a great time playing Bertie’
Robert Webb, of comedy double act Mitchell and Webb fame, resumes life as Bertie Wooster as Jeeves & Wooster in In Perfect Nonsense heads for Chichester Festival Theatre (until March 7).
Robert was in the show in London from March-May last year; he now takes the role back on tour.
“I suppose I had not really got the part out of my system,” he explains. “I just had such a great time playing Bertie. This just came up at the right time. And he is just such a great character to play. He is always either delighted or terrified. It is a huge physical performance you need!”
The premiss is that Wooster calls on his ever-dependable butler Jeeves to help him re-enact on stage one of his customarily-bonkers adventures – an adventure in which a country-house weekend takes a turn for the worse as Bertie is unwittingly called on to play matchmaker, but also to steal a silver cow creamer from Totleigh Towers.
The upshot is an evening of raucous comedy in the company of Gussie Fink-Nottle, Madeline Bassett, Sir Watkin Bassett, Dahlia Travers, Roderick Spode and Constable Oates among others, all brought to life by a cast of three, with only Wooster playing Wooster alone.
It helps that Wooster is a character people instantly warm to, as Robert says: “You have got to get them in the first 20 seconds. I had read a few of the books as a teenager and really loved them.”
As for the show, it works because under the chaos it creates is a very tightly-put together evening: “And I also think it is a fairly-audience proof show. Even if it is just before Christmas and the audience are feeling slightly agitated by other things in their lives or if they are feeling sleepy, it will still grab them. You just step onto a conveyor belt the moment it starts. You don’t have a choice really. You just step on. There are shows where just before the curtain I have felt pretty tired, but as soon as the curtain goes up, you just have to be straight into it. Once it has started, I don’t stop for the next two hours.”
Coming back to it now, Robert suspects he won’t particularly be trying to do anything different: “But with a different two actors on stage, it is going to be a different dynamic anyway.”
Robert boasts an impressive CV of TV credits: “But the stage was where I started. It’s where most people start. I was doing the student revues, Footlights at Cambridge, and that’s where I met David (Mitchell). We did two-man shows around Edinburgh and the London Fringe, and then we started making a living as writers, but we carried on making shows right until we landed Peep Show.”
As for the kind of comedy, there might just be some cross-over with the Jeeves & Wooster: “It certainly doesn’t have the abrasive edge that sometimes David and I had. This is very much a family show. But there is certainly an interest in language, an interest in wordplay that we have perhaps inherited third-hand from Wodehouse.”
Looking back on those student days, Robert says the Footlights just seemed a good idea. He saw all the people he admired, and it was generally Cambridge they all seemed to have come from.
“I suppose the Footlights are a cycle. I grew up watching people on TV who had been through it, Griff Rhys Jones, Clive Anderson, people like that. I thought it would be a good place to try. Eventually I got in! Presumably there are now people looking to go there after seeing people like David and me.”