Wilde once wrote, “I can resist everything other than temptation,” and I am always tempted into the theatre by one of his works with The Importance of Being Earnest being one of my firm favourites. At its shallowest, you are watching a farcical comedy where two gentlemen will do anything to get out of social obligations yet on a deeper level, you are witnessing a rather scathing review of the late Victorian Upper Classes. However you choose to view to this play, it is hard not to be impressed by Wilde’s acerbic tongue and find yourself chuckling at some of the ridiculous statements uttered with such sincerity on stage.
To successfully translate Wilde’s words from page to stage, there needs to be a magical combination of different elements mixing on those boards to enable the audience to fully appreciate his intentions of humour, cynicism and, in some cases, condemnation. Skilful acting is not enough, there needs to be a strong synergy between actors to fluently deliver the verbal table tennis that is embedded within Wilde’s scripts; I was not disappointed.
Algernon Moncrieff, played by Thomas Howes, is a wonderful example of an extravagant, carefree dandy whose existence is merely for pleasure. Howes delivers this character with a natural ease and it is tremendously amusing watching him spar with the more uptight character of Jack Worthing, played by Peter Sandys-Clarke. The two actors convey a genuinely comfortable relationship on stage, with constant bickering like siblings, so it is heart-warming to see the two men united as true brothers at the end of the play. Despite the situation they both find themselves in, through their web of ridiculous lies and creation of extra relatives or ill friends, they are both very likeable characters and we want them to be happy.
It is obvious that women were admired by Oscar Wilde, and this is truly demonstrated through his creation of Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew. Three very strong female roles, three very strong female minds and three very witty characters. Gwen Taylor presented us with the sharp tongued, domineering Lady Bracknell who was not going to allow her only daughter to be married to a man once found in a handbag in the cloakroom of Victoria station, the Brighton line. I confess, her delivery of the famous ‘a hand bag’ line was not as I expected but an interesting interpretation nonetheless! Taylor gave us the perfect combination of authority, condescension and absurdity through her steely glares, upright posture and cutting tone.
Kerry Ellis and Louise Coulthard expertly deliver us the characters of Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew; two strong willed ladies who know exactly what, or who, they want. Kerry Ellis played Gwendolen’s manipulation of Jack brilliantly, controlling each situation to her advantage whilst maintaining the virtuous air of a young Victorian ‘lady’. Both Ellis and Sandy-Clarke worked well together, conveying a genuine affection for each other despite the farcical situation. In contrast, Coulthard presented us with a delightfully volatile interpretation of Miss Cecily Cardew which was simply fabulous. She drew out the character’s naivety whilst recognising the strength of mind and this combination delivered an extremely comical performance of a young girl who had planned, and in some cases lived out, her future with Earnest. The chemistry between Howes and Coulthard only added to the enjoyment of watching two characters declare their love despite having only known each other for five minutes.
Susan Penhaligon and Geoff Aymer played the supporting roles of Miss Prism and Rev. Canon Chasuble creating ample opportunities for more laughter from the audience as both characters had such an unlikely yet so undeniable attraction for each other. Their awkward conversation is a stark contrast to the forward nature of Cecily and Gwendolen, more reminiscent of traditional courtship!
The set and costumes not only helped to create a naturalistic impression of the time in which these characters were living but also gave us a sense of the how the upper classes lived. From Algernon lounging on his chaise longue eating cucumber sandwiches served on silver platters to Lady Bracknell’s imposing hat and skirts, the whole set was decadent reminding us that, for characters such as these, life was about aesthetics and enjoyment, pretention and status.
So despite the humour and witticisms, it’s difficult to not come away from the theatre without a slight distaste for the Victorian upper classes and their rather egocentric lifestyles and opinions. However, one might argue that that is exactly what Wilde would have wanted, and therefore, this company would have done him proud! A very enjoyable evening full of laughter, witty banter and frivolity.