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Sparks, style, sincerity. The Importance of Being Ernest

by on 13 October 2016

The Importance of Being Ernest

by Oscar Wilde


Hampton Hill Theatre until 15th October

Review by Thomas Forsythe.


“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing”. So says Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax, the worldly and wily heroine of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest.  In the grave matter of mounting a production of a play, one might ask which is the most important to achieve.

SMDG’s current production at Hampton Hill certainly has plenty of style, but also puts across the ambiguities of Victorian society where how one does something is more important than why one does it.

Wilde’s humour comes from an interplay of cynicism versus wit and the SMDG cast achieves this balance perfectly with well paced acting that sparkles with natural rhythm and great comic timing. Director Michael Harris has chosen a cast perfectly suited to the characters and allowed them the freedom to be those characters.  In a play that runs mainly on duologues, the Wildean aphorisms, in this cast’s hands, are batted effortlessly back and forth like a genteel game of lawn tennis.  Then comes the exciting game of mixed doubles.

James Henry’s assured Algernon Moncrieff is vain, confident, duplicitous, while Richard Pool’s Jack Worthington is pragmatic, cool and calm. When the two are together, they are flint and steel, sparking off each other.  Poor Jack, with his complicated genealogy and nascence in a handbag, as a foundling in a railway terminus, seems continually trying to seek the truth.  But, as they find out, “truth is rarely pure, never simple”.   Both go Bunburying, leading a secretive double life, that leads to their downfall, but then to the happy eventual denouement.

How the sparks fly when the flighty fickle and flirtatious Gwendolen meets romantic risk-taker Cecily Cardew: both are gorgeously catty. Christina Bulford’s Gwedolen is the stylish urbanite, turning society constraints to her advantage.   Bulford exploits this style beautifully, in words, expression and body language. (She has the Victorian lady’s “deportment” to a tee, ultra-straight back and chin: how one sits speaks volumes my dear.)

Catherine De Roure’s Cecily, the sheltered young lady of the rural village manor garden, is fresh, feminine and feline.   She is the snowdrop to Gwendolen’s rose. De Roure’s interpretation is a delicious mixture of innocence and roguishness.   However, this reviewer would prefer a slower delivery of her lines to allow the full savour to come through.

The third pair are Miss Prism, Cecily’s prim governess, and the celibate Rev. Cannon Chasuble, incumbent of the village church.   Sue Birks gives a priceless performance as Miss Prism in all her not-quite-repressed passion and John Pyle shows us an eminently likeable Chasuble, whose inner feeling peep out in spite of himself. Prism and Chasuble speak in metaphors and sighs; and these characters, put in these actors’ hands, are touching to hear and entertaining to watch: brilliant.

Of course, one of the best known characters in this play is Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s overbearing mother and social engineer. Andrea Harris plays Lady B as a haughty perfumed gorgon, brittle in voice and withering in looks. She clearly enjoys the role and skilfully handles its portrayal. An actress in this part has the audience listening out for those most famous of lines “A handbag!”. These are probably also the most malleable lines of English drama and Harris’ interpretation is of derisive disgust. The audience loved it.

Equally up to the standard of the others, the minor roles of the staff are cleverly acted. Lane, the London Butler, is played with an insightful world-weariness by Graham Beresford and Merriman, the county Butler, with respectfully suppressed glee by Paul Lawston: great stuff.

Although it leads itself cleverly to transformation between the London flat, and both the garden and drawing room of the country manor, the set is somewhat out of scale and over symmetrical. In spite of being nicely dressed, it feels a little less than genuine.  However, it is greatly lifted by imaginative lighting by Malcolm Mclenan, which gives it a rounded depth by use of subtly lit cyclorama.  Margaret Revis’ costumes are authentic, colourful and gorgeous, but why the gift-wrap ribbons gilding the lily?

Bill Bulford’s sound design is a study in itself. The sound effects and interpolated music comment wittily on the action.  In the garden scene we are treated to a myriad of birdsongs, flowing quietly in the background, like an extended Tweet of the Day.  Each bird comments on the action.  So, when the lovers come in, so do the turtle doves; a carrion crow is the harbinger of Jack when he arrives disingenuously dressed in heavy mourning; whereas the approach of Algernon, who should not have been there, is heralded by the cuckoo.   The introductory music for the play is from Handel’s Agrippina (in which the intertwining of relationships is a bit more tragic!).

The Importance of Being Ernest has two themes: as a social satire it mocks marriage and matchmaking in Victorian high society, while it trounces the triviality of the times. In both themes, style wins over sincerity.   SMDG’s production achieves both style of presentation and sincerity of acting and succeeds in being Wilde’s epitome of a “trivial play for serious people”.

 Thomas Forsythe

Oct 2016


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