Tag Archives: Oscar Wilde

Getting into the Spirit

THE CANTERVILLE GHOST

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 18th December, 2018

 

Tall Stories bring Oscar Wilde’s novella to the stage in this breezy adaptation devised by the cast.  A quartet of music hall performers (a magician, a comic, a psychic, and the Chairman) enact the story, interspersing their acts between the scenes.  The Wilde and the music hall acts are given equal weight; it’s like we’re getting two shows in one – and there’s a reason for this, a reason for the outmoded music hall motif…But I’ll get to that.

Tom Jude amazes as Tom Artaud, the stage musician.  There’s a lot of stage magic in this production from sleight of hand to making things disappear, and it’s refreshing to behold first hand in this jaded, CGI world we live in.  Jude is also delightful as the disgruntled Sir Simon de Canterville, the eponymous ghost, and hilarious as the housekeeper almost collapsing under the weight of her own baggage.

Matt Jopling is young William Otis, and also a very physical comedian.  His act includes a foul-mouthed ventriloquist dummy, demonstrating Jopling’s well-honed skills, and a wicked sense of humour.  Like the stage magic, it’s a treat to see old-school ventriloquism performed so well and with an edge.

Lauren Silver is William’s twin, Olivia, and also an hilariously hammy stage psychic, retching when the spirits enter her, with her charlatanism on her sleeve – until her tricks work out, that is, and you can’t work out how she does it!

Steve McCourt, the Chairman, is mainly at the piano, but he also appears as the twins’ father, a crass salesman of household goods.  McCourt has a beautiful singing voice, especially when backed by gorgeous harmonies, provided by the other three.  The songs by Jon Fiber and Andy Shaw have a jaunty music-hall feel with clever lyrics, but also a melancholy touch.  The entire show has intimations of mortality running through it like lettering in seaside rock.  We are urged to enjoy the moment, to tell our stories well, so that we will be remembered…

Running in parallel to the Wilde story of the spectre with unfinished business, trying to clear his name for a murder he didn’t commit, is the story of the four music hall performers who have their own reasons for setting a record straight.  It ties the production up neatly and cleverly.

This is an utterly charming show, performed by appealing actors.  Using only a simple set of doors and curtains, they conjure up both the music hall stage and Canterville Hall.  The direction (by Olivia Jacobs and Toby Mitchell) keeps things slick and fluid, capitalising on the actors’ physicality and a host of sound effects to add to the humour of the presentation.

A well-crafted, beautiful bauble of a show, it’s not for the little ones, but families with older kids will be tickled and enchanted.  I loved it.

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Stubborn stain! Matt Jopling, Tom Jude, Steve McCourt, and Lauren Silver

 

 

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Seaside Sauce

HABEAS CORPUS

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 16th March, 2018

 

Alan Bennett’s curious farce from the early 1970s doesn’t feel like an Alan Bennett.  The cosy, Northern bleakness of his bathos is not present in this early work, in which he strives to dazzle with his intelligence at the expense of character development.  A farce needs a light touch to make its contrivances palatable; Bennett peppers his with dark observations about mortality amid all the libido-driven incidents and misunderstandings.  The play sounds very much like a Joe Orton.

Vanessa Comer gives her production a decidedly seaside postcard appeal: bathing huts and bunting serve as the setting, and the performance style is very much end-of-the-pier revue.  The cast adopt a larger-than-life style to suit the excesses of their characters – ciphers, by and large, with their individual lusts and longings driving their actions.

Niki Baldwin kicks things off as charwoman-cum-narrator-cum-host, Mrs Swabb, an impudent but charming presence – a working class character bemused by the goings-on of this middle-class mob.  Pamela Hickson is pitch perfect as the frustrated Mrs Wicksteed, neglected by her husband, flitting between deadpan and melodramatic posturing.  As her husband, Dr Wicksteed, Peter Ward can afford to be more exaggerated in his lechery, to increase the contrast between his professional and his personal demeanours.  Kathy Buckingham is a hoot as lonely spinster Connie, proudly sporting her mail-order mammaries – the triggers for incidences of mistaken identity.  After a bit of a flustered start, David Draper’s Sir Percy provides some funny moments with his trousers down.  Abi Deehan is sweetly conniving as young Felicity, hoping to trap a man into marrying her and legitimise the child she is carrying, but for me, the most consistent and developed characterisation of the show comes from Nathan Brown as the Wicksteed’s weedy, spotty, hypochondriac son, Dennis – an Emo Phillips lookalike, the antithesis of the dashing young hero!

It’s familiar territory but Bennett heightens the theatricality; the cast need to sharpen the quickfire asides to the audience and I’m sure the first-night fluffs will disappear as the show’s run progresses, and the entrances and exits need sharpening to maintain a fast pace.

The plot winds up with a direct riff on The Importance of Being Earnest with Margot McCleary’s Lady Rumpers doing a Lady Bracknell and Dennis paraphrasing John Worthing regarding his adopted fatal illness.

And so Bennett, yet to find his own voice, gives us Orton and now Oscar Wilde – it makes sense.  All three are gay men holding up to ridicule the social and sexual mores of heterosexuals, making the audience laugh at themselves.  Society has moved on since the play’s first production – does the audience recognise itself on the stage?  Probably not very much; these two-dimensional stereotypes are old hat.

All in all, this makes for an enjoyable production, with the energy of the cast just about covering the creaking of the plot.

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Mrs Swabb (Niki Baldwin) introduces Dennis (Nathan Brown)


Taking the Veil

SALOME

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 22nd June, 2017

 

Oscar Wilde’s one-act tragedy is far from a particular favourite of mine.  I prefer his epigrammatic, frothy word play to the heightened, florid language of this retelling of the Biblical story, where the characters speak mainly in similes and declamations.  How refreshing it is when Herodias proclaims, “The moon is like the moon!” – as fed up with the poetic spouting as I am!

Owen Horsley’s production has a decidedly ‘gay’ aesthetic.  Herod’s guards could be bouncers in a fetish club (I imagine) but there delivery is mere recitation.  The action begins to come to life with the first appearance of Salome herself (a gamin Matthew Tennyson) who speaks her lines as though she means them rather than pompous intonation.   Salome is intrigued by Herod’s prisoner, the prophet Iokanann (John the Baptist by another name) played by Gavin Fowler.  Iokanann is filthy, clad only in his underwear, but he still catches the young princess’s eye.  He rejects her advances – with fatal consequences.  What I don’t get is why he is permitted to continue giving his ominous predictions – if characters like Herod and Herodias find his words so annoying or insulting, why didn’t they gag him, at least?  Oh well.  His prophecies add to the sense of impending doom, I suppose.

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Rants in his pants: Gavin Fowler as Iokanaan (Photo: Isaac James)

Fowler is an agile Iokanann, filled with the wild conviction of his beliefs, while Suzanne Burden’s wearily glamorous Herodias is a fine comic counterpoint.  Matthew Pidgeon is imposing as the hedonistic Herod, and there are some fine, compelling moments: for example, a spot of contemporary dance depicting the grief of the Page (Andro Cowperthwaite) for the death of Assad Zaman’s Young Syrian.  The music by Perfume Genius is pulsing and vibrant, with the energy of clubland, which works well to underscore the action.  Singer Ilan Evans, a world-weary M.C. adds torch-song resignation to events as they unfold.

But it is Matthew Tennyson’s Salome that holds the attention.  Seemingly fragile, almost bird-like, he evokes rather than impersonates the female.  His dance is a high-energy, jerky affair, reflecting the lust of Herod and his court – Polly Bennett’s movement direction brings angst and tension and above all expression to Wilde’s difficult exchanges.  Tennyson is boldly defiant – Salome is accustomed to using her wiles to get her own way but is also strong and stubborn enough to stand her ground when denied.  She is determined to kill the thing she loves – ooh, that sounds familiar… The story culminates in horror as Salome remonstrates and coos with the head of the man who rejected her advances.

A rather patchy affair, I’m afraid, this tale about unrequited passions, but on the whole I think I enjoyed the production more than the actual play.

Salome production photos_ June 2017_2017_Photo by Isaac James _c_ RSC_220811

Wilde at heart: Matthew Tennyson as Salome (Photo: Isaac James)

 


Wilde Thing

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.

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Edward Franklin and Sharan Phull (Photo: Tom Wren)

 

 

 


Trivial Pursuit

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?

Yes.

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.

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Earnest bunch: The Cast


Wilde at Heart

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 21st October, 2014

A glance at the cast list for this touring production leads one to think, ungallantly, that they’re all a bit, well, long in the tooth for Oscar Wilde’s comedy about a pair of young Lotharios.  The company is evidently aware of how they will be perceived and so the Wilde play is framed within another play about a bunch of middle class amateur thesps gathering for a rehearsal of The Importance in somebody’s house.  I remember Hinge and Bracket doing something similar yonks ago.

And so, in fits and starts the “Bunbury Players” present the opening act.  In sub-Noises Off fashion things go wrong on and off stage, only here instead of sardines it’s cucumber sandwiches that go astray.  I appreciate why this framing story (written by Simon Brett) might be necessary but it’s excruciating and gets in the way of dear old Oscar’s genius.   Where this production comes alive is when they let Wilde have his head and scenes are performed with vim and gusto uninterrupted by contrived ‘mistakes’.

Nigel Havers is at home in either play as the womanising Dicky who plays Algernon.  It’s the kind of smarm and charm that has become his trademark and there is even a hint of sending himself up.  With Martin Jarvis as a white-haired but nevertheless energetic Jack Worthing (supposedly 29 years old) there is some very funny verbal sparring.  We overlook their advanced years and enjoy the play for itself.

Sian Phillips makes a formidable Lady Bracknell, while Cherie Lunghi convinces as young Gwendolen, up against Christine Kavanagh’s spirited Cecily.  Some of the comic business director Lucy Bailey has them do is a little heavy-handed.  Wilde should be kept frothy but barbed.

Niall Buggy is a treat as Reverend Chasuble to Rosalind Ayres’s neurotic Miss Prism.

After the interval, the ‘interruptions’ no longer trouble us but there remains an abiding sense of tension that at any minute, something ‘hilarious’ will ‘go wrong’ and deflate the delicious soufflé the actors are working hard to create.

Mercifully, it doesn’t and every member of the cast proves there is not only life but talent and ability in this pack of old dogs.  The result is an amusing evening with the biggest laughs going to Wilde’s dazzling epigrams, but I would prefer it if they hadn’t pandered to ageism and just played it ‘straight’.

Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis

Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis


Oscar Winning

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

Rose Theatre, Kingston on Thames, Tuesday 25th October, 2011

 

You wait years for a production of Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece and then two come along in the same season.  This one, at Kingston’s marvellous Rose, outshines the earlier one in practically every aspect.

 

The stage is dominated by a false proscenium arch, gilded and enormous.  To the characters it is the elephant in the room but to the audience it is a constant and glaring reminder of the theatricality of the piece.  All is contrivance and artifice, and while other versions take the script at face value and play things naturalistically, allowing Wilde’s wonderful wit to do the donkey work, Stephen Unwin directs this cast to play for laughs.  There is a physicality to the characters I have not seen before.

 

In particular, Daniel Brocklebank displays a talent for comic playing as protagonist Jack.  He gives the character a short fuse – an explosion into frustrated rage is never far away, invariably provoked by Bruce Mackinnon’s carefree Algernon.  This Jack not only lives by his wits, he is frequently at his wits’ end.  It is a spirited and energised performance, both nuanced and larger-than-life.

 

There is a delicious double-take from Jane Asher as the imperious hypocrite, Lady Bracknell but not where you think it might be and, while just a few of the lines are thrown away, the entire cast forms a delightful ensemble.  The epigrams trip off their tongues but there is also some acutely observed physical business that enhances the action.  Richard Cordery’s Chasuble is a gentle giant of a man, shaking the dew from his shoes as he strolls around the grounds with Ishia Bennison’s scatterbrained Miss Prism.   Jack’s searching of the army records that will deliver the resolution to the ridiculous plot is perfectly silly.  It is not just the fact that the answer lies in these old books but the way he consults them.  It is attention to details like this that raises this production above others.

 

I would like to have seen more made of Merriman the butler when Gwendolen and Cecily are engaging in the most elegant bitch-fight in all literature, but all in all, I left the theatre invigorated by the new life injected into this old classic.