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The Importance of Being Earnest

by on 12 April 2019

Keeping Up Appearances

The Importance of Being Earnest

by Oscar Wilde

Q2 Players, The National Archives Theatre until 13th April

a review by Matthew Grierson

The Importance of Being Earnest is, at face value, a play about appearances. It relishes them and the fictions woven around them – the Bunburyism that is Algie’s creed – rather than the realities they conceal. To paraphrase another wit: sincerity is all that matters, and once you can fake that you’ve got it made.

In this respect, Q2’s production of Wilde’s classic comedy works when it keeps up appearances, and suffers when it fails to maintain them. The confected lives of Jack and Algernon convince as long as one doesn’t linger too long over their absurdities; but this staging has a stop–start rhythm that in places fails to maintain its facades. In Jack’s interview with Lady Bracknell, for instance, Tim Williams makes for a game dame, but his responses to his prospective son-in-law sound like punchlines to jokes that haven’t properly been set up, as David Tedora struggles to convey the essential nervous garrulity that the scene demands.

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While her ladyship insists on Victorian formality, the set conveys the milieu in an unusually minimal way, making effective use of projections on a screen behind to offer some depth. But then instead of exploiting the space this lightly furnished setting affords, the action largely takes place in one plane, as though projected on a screen itself. It is only as the play moves towards its end and the couplings of Jack with Gwendolen and Algernon with Cecily are confirmed that we get some sense of a third dimension, with one beau pulling his respective belle towards him and the other repeating the action in front.

With so few moveables, the scene changes ought to be a piece of proverbial cake (plenty of which is served up in the action), but they are long, fussy bits of business; at the same time, they allow the awkwardly affectionate affair between Miss Prism and Rev. Chasuble to play out delightfully on the screen. Are the stagehands extemporising to afford us this entertainment, in much the same way as the characters do? If so, fair play to stage manager Charlotte Priestly and the two butlers who help her out.

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I’m making this sound like a curate’s egg, though, and I don’t think that does the show justice (Chasuble is a canon after all) because there is an eagerness to please that evidences the earnestness of the cast. To coin a Wildean apothegm, to play The Importance as a string of funny lines may be a misfortune, but not to play it as a string of funny lines would be careless. And one could hardly in this instance say the lines were immaterial, as they conjured the requisite laughter throughout Thursday’s audience.

Hugh Cox lights things up from the start, with his perky and expressive Algernon. I’d say he owes something of a debt to Bertie Wooster, only that would be a little anachronistic, and Algie is also quicker on the uptake than Wodehouse’s hero. Slightly less quick on the uptake is Tedora’s Jack, who hasn’t yet mastered the comic timing that should make the piece sing; never mind pulling one over on Gwendolen and her mother, he needs a more commanding presence if he’s to convince us that he’s as earnest as he makes out.

As Algie’s Aunt Augusta, Tim Williams takes this production down the line of the pantomimic; it’s a brave move, especially in the shadow – or the light of – the acclaim won recently by the much more diminutive David Suchet as her ladyship in the West End, but Williams gives a solid performance, in several senses, anchoring the particular tone of this staging, and he neither milks nor underplays the handbag.

In the role of his/her daughter Gwendolen, Rachel Burnham offers a full, and fully crafty, portrayal, from which it is hard to take one’s eyes. Even in a small gesture such as pretending to follow her mother offstage, when she has been forbidden to converse with Jack, the single step Burnham takes before remaining precisely where she stands is a model of playful poise.

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Equally watchable is Ellie Greenwood as Cecily, confined to the countryside by her guardian but living an imaginary life through her diary. Once she has ensnared Algie, who is posing as Ernest, there is an endearing twinkle to the way she reads this diary back to him, to reveal that – in her version of events at least – they have already been engaged for months.

With the characters of both fiancées nicely established, the stage is set for their meeting and misunderstanding. Their first encounter, which starts the second half, does not disappoint: the manners of the maidens run the gamut of faux-friendliness, passive aggression and finally fellow feeling – I punched the air when they pronounced themselves sisters as the boys had predicted – the scene perfectly played, paced and blocked.

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There is a likewise enjoyable dynamic between Laurie Coombs as Miss Prism and Craig Cameron-Fisher as Chasuble, whose romance plays out in the background – I derive the metaphor from the literal here – of the two young (well, youngish) couples. Chasuble could merely have been a stooge for Jack and Algie’s impromptu demands, but Cameron-Fisher has him perk up with pecuniary interest when a funeral or christening is in the offing; and he is nicely balanced by Coombs, who allows Prism as much girlish fantasy as her charge, in remembering the sentimental three-volume novel she composed as a younger woman. We all place our faith in such fictions.

If these pairings work, the denouement is nevertheless a bit of a strain. While individual lines get their laughs, Sarah Hill’s direction at this crucial juncture lacks sufficient zip or zing to suspend our disbelief. Lady B’s ad lib about looking up the name of Moncrieff Sr in the National Archive is on its own terms fine, but it throws Jack off and gives us all pause to ponder the unlikelinesses that have stacked up to get us into this situation. While it may be difficult for Jack and Algie to maintain their earnest fictions for the women in their lives, Earnest needs at least to sustain that story for the audience.

Matthew Grierson
April 2019

Photography by Simone Germaine Best

From → Drama, Reviews

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