The Importance of Being Earnest
The Garrick Theatre, Lichfield
Original Theatre Company’s fresh and engaging take on Oscar Wilde’s perennial comedy of manners strikes a pleasing balance between tradition and contemporary interpretation.
While the plot is unashamedly simple, what makes this piece work on the highest level, and what largely accounts for its continued appeal is the sheer precision and application of its language.
No utterances are wasted. Sentences are fully formed and beautifully constructed. It almost feels, at times, like a spoken list of immaculate quotes woven around a sweet but less important storyline.
Such brilliant writing needs to be done justice, of course, by the actors. Uniformly, this is achieved here. Timing, pace and projection never falter as characters make their own mark with real clarity from the outset. Interactions too, whether they may be declarations of undying love or plans for some high jinks in the countryside are beautifully played out, staying loyal to the text but allowing for fresh and subtle interpretations to shine.
Lady Bracknell, the central force of nature to the story, is perceived, thanks mostly to Edith Evan’s iconic portrayal, as a woman not to be even remotely trifled with (The word ‘ handbag ‘ has probably never been used with such terrifying force.) Gwen Taylor brings a slightly softer edge to the role. A little wiser and, dare I say, ‘nicer’ Lady Bracknell.
This is a character whose word is final, however sweetly those words are phrased. Taylor may give her Lady Bracknell the odd smile and there is a twinkle in the eye, but there’s never any doubt who is right and who is wrong.
Gwen Taylor as Lady Bracknell
In a play centred so much around it’s text, physical energy needs to be sustained. Thomas Howes as Algernon matches foppish physicality with crystal clear delivery as he devours any foodstuff put in front of him and plots his next venture into the world of ‘Bunburyism’. A delight, both to watch and to listen to.
Louise Coulthard gives Cecily Cardew a feisty edge and combats delightfully with her assumed love rival, Gwendolen Fairfax (Hannah Louise Howell). Young women living in a man’s world but still with forthright opinions of their own. Wilde was not afraid to make men look foolish and give women the upper hand. Impressive, for a play written in 1895.
There are no weak links. Peter Sandys–Clarke bumbles to perfection as Jack, providing an upright contrast to Algernon’s posturing.
Susan Penhaligon, as the unfortunately absent minded Miss Prism potters around delightfully, giving Rev Chasuble (Geoff Aymer ) the benefit of her observations.
Butlers rarely get the most lines, but they often get some of the funniest. Simon Shackleton as Lane/Merriman doesn’t disappoint. And a lovely touch at the end as he pairs up with the Moulton the maid, played by Judith Rae.
Director, Alasdair Whatley stays loyal to the adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it‘ but this is certainly no re-hash of a tried and tested formula. Characters are given time and opportunity to put their own, more contemporary stamp on proceedings and it clearly works. Visually, it is as you might imagine. Lavish costumes and a period set are rightly retained. What elevates this production is it’s joyous interaction between characters and its consistent precision of delivery - something that never drops from start to finish.
A thoroughly enjoyable and faithful revival of a much loved and important piece of theatre.