The first half of Upper Lip - a new play by Robin Johnson - is so much like any one of P.G. Wodehouse’s novels that I began to wonder why Johnson bothered to write it. Samuel Plumwood is a dim-witted, implausibly ignorant and wildly incompetent millionaire and Rinehart is a clever, quick-witted butler who rescues his feckless master in times of trouble. Plumwood reveals that he has accidentally become engaged to a young lady he has no interest in marrying, and Rinehart must find a way to annul the engagement while keeping Samuel’s odious, gossipy aunt from finding out.
Overall, the show succeeds in modernising a well-loved genre and has an elegant plot that incorporates just the right amount of satirical punch towards classist snobbery.
It is difficult, at first, to overlook how uninventive this idea is, but the play takes a surprising turn halfway through the show. This shift is rather clever and delightful and immediately transforms the play from quite derivative, (though polished), to original and marvellously engaging. The pace of the plot picks up rapidly and the butler’s schemes in the earlier half of the play connect with the ending in a very elegant way.
The actors put on a fine performance and it’s clear they are mimicking the archetypal portrayals of Jeeves and Wooster from the early 90s. Canavan Connolly’s portrayal of Rinehart seems to be replicated directly from Stephen Fry’s Jeeves, with his overly posh pronunciation, verbosity, and voice that lilts to a higher pitch when he’s being particularly pompous. Meanwhile, Dominic Rye plays Samuel Plumwood as an oafish, barking gentleman, in a way reminiscent of Hugh Laurie’s role as Prince Regent in the third series of Blackadder.
The play aims to deliberately parody a well-established genre, but it does spend a bit too much time adhering to the genre it’s trying to subvert. Consequently, the majority of the humour and wit resort to formulaic constructions drawn from Wodehouse. The jokes consist mostly of the rich gentleman’s comic inability to understand anything modern or progressive and the butler’s supercilious, dry, and long-winded comments. Aside from this stylistic issue, there is a problematic scene towards the end of the play. I understand that the writer is aiming to highlight the butler’s aloof upper-class efficiency, but I felt uncomfortable with the trivial treatment of violence towards women.
Overall, the show succeeds in modernising a well-loved genre and has an elegant plot that incorporates just the right amount of satirical punch towards classist snobbery. But, it would perhaps benefit from reaching its turning-point a bit sooner and should give a more considered treatment in its depiction of violence.