A simple visual image sets the scene for Upper Lip, a tasty literary pastiche with an unexpected bite. Filing into the theatre, you’re met by a man in a smoking jacket, sitting in an armchair and idly plucking a banjolele. You’ll recognise the scene at once: we’re plainly in the world of PG Wodehouse, and this foppish musician’s long-suffering manservant must surely be waiting in the wings.
A few banjolele-strums later, these suspicions are confirmed, as we’re launched without hesitation into a pleasingly preposterous plot. A social mix-up has left Samuel Plumwood engaged – as, in a Wodehouse universe, social mix-ups so frequently do – and it falls to his butler, the dryly competent Reinhart, to plot his boss’s way out of the mess. The ensuing caper is as convoluted and implausible as you could possibly have hoped for, and a trip to a village fête with resulting bicycle chase duly delivers almost non-stop laughter.
Like all good pastiches, Upper Lip goes slightly further than Wodehouse ever did, but not as far as you imagine he ever might have done. The story’s told with witty self-awareness and some triumphant turns of phrase, and a few moments of physical comedy serve well to break up the intellectual banter. Dominic Rye is superb as Plumwood – all toffish manners and staring eyes – and if you should happen to think that Canavan Connolly’s burly butler doesn’t have quite the upper-crust accent you’d expect him to, then perhaps there’s a reason for that.
Because it turns out that playwright Robin Johnson is pulling off a jolly old wheeze of his own. Two-thirds of the way in, there’s a sudden change; the carefree humour turns dark and inside-out, as we learn that matters in the Plumwood household aren’t entirely as they’ve seemed. It’s an audacious and inspired plot twist, which again stays just the right side of believability – albeit that a few more clues in the earlier scenes could have made the transition more satisfying still.
It’s evident, though, that this startling turn-around isn’t there for its humour value alone. It’s written too angrily and insistently for that; there’s a serious political intent to it as well, and I’m afraid I left without entirely understanding the subtleties of what Johnson was trying to convey. I do get the parallels to our Eton-heavy Westminster government, but at the end of the day, there’s a limit to how much you can say by lampooning characters who were already a parody a century ago.
Perhaps the aim’s to hold a mirror up – to make us laugh along with something, and then ask us whether it’s really as harmless as it seems – but if so, I really can’t blame myself for guffawing heartily at such a finely-tuned pastiche. So as a complete work, Upper Lip didn’t quite hold together for me. But it’s well worth seeing anyway, for both the riotously funny first half and the genuinely surprising conclusion.