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)
Leave a comment | tags: Angela Clerkin, Cathy Tyson, Darren Bennett, Dominic Gately, Edward Franklin, Fela Lufadeju, Isla Shaw, Martha Mackintosh, Nikolai Foster, Oscar Wilde, review, Sharan Phull, The Importance of Being Earnest, The REP Birmingham | posted in Theatre Review
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
Leave a comment | tags: Cherie Lunghi, Christine Kavanagh, Lucy Bailey, Martin Jarvis, New Alexandra Theatre Birmingham, Niall Buggy, Nigel Havers, Oscar Wilde, Rosalind Ayres, Sian Phillips, Simon Brett, The Importance of Being Earnest | posted in Theatre Review