THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
Blue Orange Theatre, Friday 29th April, 2016
Oscar Wilde’s comic masterpiece is a challenge for any group. The wordy, witty epigrams in which the characters converse take a certain kind of delivery, to make them sound fresh and clear with their ‘punchlines’ sharp. Does this new production at the Blue Orange deliver?
From the off, Harvey Bassett’s exuberant Algernon amuses, in his powder blue suit and his upper-class-twit accent – it’s not overdone, thank goodness, and works brilliantly. Bassett manages to get his lines out through a mouthful of cucumber sandwich. It takes a while longer to warm to Benjamin Darlington’s Jack – a tightly wound characterisation, he could blow a fuse at any second – but he maintains his energy throughout and delivers a comically expressive performance of a man a hair’s breadth from a panic attack.
Karen Whyte’s Gwendolen is also a rounded and sustained comic creation: a minx, using her height to show she can be as imperious as her mother. There are some exquisite moments with Megan Strachan’s perky Cicely that are superbly timed. As the formidable Lady Bracknell, Elizabeth Bracknell looks and sounds the part but she needs to take care that lines, some of them rather convoluted, don’t fizzle out and lose their impact.
As the dotty Miss Prism, Jennifer Rigby plays it broad – and gets a lot of laughs – but for me it’s the hard-working and versatile Neville Cann who both takes and, as Merriman, brings the cake! Appearing as two butlers (his Lane is a lugubrious delight) and as the cleric Dr Chasuble (a set-up involving some quick changes) he gives a model lesson in how to deliver Wilde.
Ian Craddock’s simple set design is adaptable to suggest the locations of each of the three acts but it’s Simon Ravenhill’s costumes that evoke the end of the 19th century. On the whole, director Oliver Hume paces the action well, and there are some hilarious moments of comic business, touches of physical comedy to offset the verbal fireworks, although I feel some of the ideas are a little too large for the Blue Orange’s intimate space: the collective gasps at the revelations in the final act, for example – I am nit-picking perhaps; this is a really enjoyable evening’s entertainment, with Wilde’s wit effervescently delivered by a charming company.
A frothy confection of a play that tickles the ribs throughout, with many laugh-out-loud moments, The Importance of Being Earnest remains one of the funniest plays ever written, a celebration of the trivialities of life, and is satisfyingly presented in this small-scale and effective production.