THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 14th September, 2016
“We live in a world of surfaces,” says Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s comic masterpiece that holds a mirror up to society. Designer Isla Shaw takes this at face value and gives us a set that is all mirrored surfaces. It’s opulent and bright, and a nifty idea, but rather than draw us in, suggesting that the play is showing us ourselves, I find it distracting to see the actors reflected from all sides.
There seems to be a desire to give the piece – over a century old – a contemporary feel. This is entirely unnecessary; the lines are as fresh and funny as ever. Rather than blasting out electro-dance music, director Nikolai Foster should allow the play to speak for itself, and let it remind us how contemporary it feels without these jarring trappings. Poor Gwendolen (Martha Mackintosh) has to wear a period dress lacking a front from the knees down. It’s entirely out of keeping and I find myself questioning the design choices rather than listening to the dialogue. Fela Lufadeju’s John Worthing fares a little better: one of his suits makes him look like a bus conductor and his mourning clothes are a little too steampunk.
Apart from these disturbing elements, this is a highly enjoyable production, especially when the genius of Wilde is allowed to come to the fore. Handsome Edward Franklin seems most at home as the hedonistic Algernon, while Cathy Tyson’s Lady Bracknell is as formidable and imperious as you could hope. There is some neat character acting from Dominic Gately as Dr Chasuble and Angela Clerkin as Miss Prism, and I like Sharan Phull’s youthful energy as Cecily Cardew. Darren Bennett gives us two markedly different butlers; I’ve never seen a Merriman so camp. Some of the timing needs sharpening – the bitchy scene between the two young girls could be more arch – but on the whole, the cast deliver Wilde’s often convoluted sentences very well. They also, at times, need to ride the laughs a little better so that follow-up ripostes are not lost to us.
The delights of Wilde’s contrivances still tickle us. This seemingly trivial play is rich with social commentary and satire, and the revelations at the denouement are still breathtakingly silly. This production for the most part is a lovely confection; there are just one or two things I would leave on the side of my plate.
Edward Franklin and Sharan Phull (Photo: Tom Wren)
TWELVE ANGRY MEN
Festival Theatre, Malvern, Monday 28th October, 2013
Reginald Rose’s play puts a twist on the courtroom drama, in that we spend the duration of the drama, behind the scenes in the jury room. We listen to the dozen jurors argue and analyse their opinions of what seems at first to be an open-and-shut case. A young man is accused of stabbing his father to death. There is an eyewitness and even an earwitness. The men believe their work will be done in minutes flat and they will be able to leave the hothouse atmosphere of the room and get on with their widely different lives, having paid lip service to their onerous civic duty.
But… Juror Number 8 pipes up. He alone doesn’t vote Guilty. Martin Shaw is superb as the quiet man, standing his ground. His dissent sets off the fireworks that fill the rest of the two hours. Bit by bit the evidence is picked apart and just as gradually, more of the jurors begin to have doubts. Every time the foreman (Luke Shaw) takes a vote, it’s an electrifying moment of theatre.
In the humid and oppressive atmosphere of a stormy evening, the men reveal their characters and their prejudices. Rose gives us more than a murder mystery – the play is also a set of character sketches. There is plenty for the excellent cast to get their teeth into. Nick Moran brings energy as the brash loudmouth, eager to get to his baseball game. Robert Vaughan brings quiet dignity and acuity as the most senior of the jurors. Miles Richardson’s Juror 10 is a remarkable portrayal of a blue collar bigot, direct from the streets of Noo Yoik in the 50s. Edward Franklin as the youngest juror proves he can give as good as these acting heavyweights, but in truth, every man jack of them is compelling.
Director Christopher Haydon keeps the energy going. Twelve men around a table could quickly become static and boring. He keeps them moving, keeps the moments of contrast sharp, and the emotional intensity cranked up. There is also humour in their heated interactions but what I didn’t expect is the emotional kick in the guts at the end. Jeff Fahey is a commanding stage presence as the hothead, short-tempered Juror 3 with a forceful personality, whose personal bias is revealed in the final moments. Fahey is so good throughout the piece but he tops it off with his moment in the spotlight. I rarely give standing ovations to drama but I voted with my feet on this occasion, my applause only interrupted when I stopped to wipe my eyes.
Verdict: Guilty of providing a flawless and moving night at the theatre.
Sentence: They will be taken from this place to a place in the West End to do a long stretch there.