What, no Aunt Agatha?

Andrew Lloyd Webber meets Alan Ayckbourn in the all-new Stephen Joseph Theatre. The result: somewhat less than top hole. By Paul Taylor
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The Independent Culture
Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber: these names and the word "flop" go together like, ooh, the name Howard Barker and the idea of a good night out. But when the pair of them joined forces on the musical Jeeves back in 1975, it resulted in a show that was, in the words of one commentator, "as long as Parsifal and only half as amusing". Brevity was confined to the run: four and a half weeks.

Now, wiser and certainly richer men, they have got back together for a thorough re-write. By Jeeves has a completely different book and only three songs from the original have been carried over. Returning to the scene of their crimes is not a habit you would wish to encourage in the writers of musicals. Imagine being threatened with a re-vamped Bernadette or a new, improved Which Witch.

You can see, however, why coming back to the Jeeves project appealed to Ayckbourn at this juncture. It gives him an attention-grabbing party- atmosphere show with which to launch the new two-auditoria Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, a pounds 5.25m conversion of the local Odeon. And it enables him to correct the errors of over-scale that bedevilled the authors' first bash at Wodehouse. Instead of being swamped in lavish production values, Ayckbourn's present staging is in-the-round (and in the Round, for that's the name of the main house) and it's intimate and jokily hand- to-mouth, given that the piece masquerades as a makeshift play-within- a-play designed to divert the audience when Bertie's scheduled charity banjo concert is delayed for lack of a banjo.

So what's the verdict? Well, I have good news and mixed news. The good news is that the theatre complex itself strikes one as a huge success. The Round is a bigger, 404ft replica of the old theatre in the boys' grammar school with some nifty and novel facilities, like the wire-mesh trampoline ceiling (a recent Canadian innovation) which can be walked about on by lighting technicians and the complex lift system under the stage.

Opening later this month with a revival of Alan Bennett's Forty Years On, the second auditorium, the McCarthy, is a 165ft end-stage theatre which will function as a cinema on Sundays and Monday evenings. After the place has found its feet, both houses will run plays in rep; the eventual aim is that 50 per cent of these will be first productions of new works. The building, with its attractive art deco features, its restaurant, art gallery, spacious bar and room for live front-of-house events, has the potential to create a buzzing environment that will pull people in and even encourage some of them to risk an encounter with theatre.

The mixed news is By Jeeves, which is a bit hit-and-miss. The plot is a dizzily successful conflation of several of Wodehouse's stories with some additional Ayckbournian complications, though without (alas) one of those formidable dragon aunts. For me, the piece took a fair while to warm up. The gags flowing from the fact that Bertie (a likeable Steven Pacey) and Jeeves (a fastidious Malcolm Sinclair) are having to improvise the show with the meagre means to hand in Little Wittam Church Hall get more than a touch wearisome. For example, as Bertie "drives" through the countryside (actually pulled round by Jeeves on an upturned table), the same bloke in a cow costume has to rush to each of the four exits to provide rural atmosphere. All the actors are charming and funny, but the fake amateurism is sometimes neither.

Things liven up decisively with the "Hallo Song", a number which, as a desperate precaution against exposure as impostors, Bertie and Gussie trick Nicolas Colicos's wonderfully funny conceited chump of an American jam-magnet into believing is an English tradition of re-introducing yourself. The other highlight is "By Jeeves", the opening song of the second half, when Bertie and two chinless chums (with a collective IQ of around 42) are seen performing a preposterously lopsided, purposeful stride round a mock-up fountain. For the most part, though, Lloyd Webber's music lacks the necessary wit and period flair: a ditty like "Travel Hopefully" sounds like something an optimist might have entered for the Eurovision Song Contest in the late Sixties.

Ayckbourn's book reaches heights of inspired daftness but his lyrics remain grounded. Wodehouse described his novels as musical comedies without the music and By Jeeves only intermittently convinces you that music adds much to them.

n To 1 June. Booking: 01723 370541

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