The Importance of Being Earnest, Salisbury Playhouse and touring

OSCAR Wilde’s classic comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest must surely be one of the most enduring and best loved plays in the English language.  In this stylish production, from the Suffolk based Original Theatre Company, and with some well-known faces in the cast, it is not difficult to see why.  Who cares if, as one anonymous reviewer at the first performance wrote, the play “only shows the importance of being Oscar” and that “all the dramatis personae from the heroes down to the butlers, talk pure and undiluted Wildese”, the play, which was first seen in London in 1895, has more than stood the test of time and has delighted audiences ever since.

Sadly, the theatre was barely half full.  Whether it was the recent bad weather or maybe the dreadful business with the Russian spies I don’t know.  What I do know, however, is that last night’s performance was an absolute joy.  Reading director Alastair Whatley’s programme notes in the interval, he writes that this production was intended purely as a celebration; a celebration for celebration’s sake.  Written several weeks before the recent poisoning, almost literally next door of course, how sadly appropriate it was that he should be inviting us “to escape into Oscar’s perfectly constructed alternate reality where our cares and worries take on the form of baked goods, handbags and Bunburying”.

I am sure most of us in the auditorium will have been familiar with the play which was, for the most part, not overly played for laughs, the director wisely choosing to allow Wilde’s inimitable words to speak for themselves. But laugh we did, of course, at the rich dialogue, dialogue which was delivered with elegance and considerable freshness.  In less capable hands a wordy play can flag, but not this, and Whatley’s production kept going at a cracking pace to the very end.

There was a wonderful exuberance and theatricality in Thomas Howe’s portrayal of Algernon, which contrasted beautifully with the earnestness of Peter Sandy-Clarke’s Jack.  As Gwendolen, Hannah Louise Howell had just the right degree of archness that one would expect from a woman of her undoubted good breeding.  She used her eyes to terrific effect and the famous tea-party scene, when she and Cecily believe themselves to be engaged to the same man was a delight.  There was a charming school-girlishness in Louise Coulthard’s portrayal of Cecily – I loved the way she threw herself into Algernon’s arms in the final moments of Act III.  There was also some particularly fine ensemble acting between the four of them earlier in the play, when the identities of both Jack and Algernon are revealed to their respective fiancées.

Gwen Taylor as Lady Bracknell, who undoubtedly has undoubtedly some of the most memorable lines in the play, was very much the grande dame.  Stately as Joyce Grenfell’s galleon, she sailed across the stage in a magnificent costume and what must be just about the biggest bustle ever!  Her sense of timing and overall air of imperiousness were quite superb – most definitely a member of the old guard, and one who must be obeyed at all times and at all costs.  Her famous handbag scene with Jack towards the end of Act I was just one of the many delightful set pieces

As Miss Prism, the female of repellent aspect, Susan Penhaligon brought rather more to the show than just witty dialogue with her facial expressions, obvious taste for a drop of the hard stuff and eyes for Canon Chasuble (Geoff Aymer).  The short scene between the two of them on the garden swing was as funny as I have ever seen.  “Maturity can always be depended upon.  Ripeness can be trusted.  Young women are green. [Dr Chasuble starts] I spoke horticulturally.  My metaphor was drawn from fruits.”   Lovely stuff.

Finally, keeping a weather eye on all of this, Simon Shackleton as both Lane (Algernon’s manservant) and Merriman (Jack’s butler) was simply splendid – all-knowing, ever watchful and, of course, totally discreet – something which Wilde makes very clear in the very opening moments of the play: “Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?” asks Algernon to which comes the reply “I didn’t think it polite to listen sir.”   This short exchange still causes me to laugh out loud.

Visually, Gabriella Slade’s costumes were quite outstanding, beautifully detailed and capturing the personalities of the characters to an absolute T.  Less successful, I felt, was her metallic, very gloomy set, much in the style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.  Perhaps it was meant to represent a prison (a foretaste of Reading Gaol perhaps), with the characters either trapped in or protected from the outside world.  For me, it was very much at odds with the airiness and lightness of approach which permeated other aspects of the production.

The Importance of Being Earnest, which is part-way through a national tour, runs at the Playhouse until Saturday.


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