IT isn’t easy to take a play that everyone knows backwards and do something different with it, but director Beth Archer has succeeded with her production of Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece at Shaftesbury Arts Centre, until 14th October.
When Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest, coming from an Anglo-Irish background very different from the aristocratic world of his principal characters, late Victorian society was creaking towards the end of the 19th century. The biggest social upheavals in history were just a few years away, through the Great War and into the Roaring Twenties.
Beth Archer, with support from designer Kim Pragnell, has moved the play into that cauldron of change, leaving Lady Bracknell, like one of Joyce Grenfell’s “stately galleons,” an Edwardian relic, with her big hats and her corseted formal dresses.
The opening scene is set in what the director calls “a monochrome paper theatre” in which the young lovers strain to break free of the older generation’s rules and expectations.
Just as those changes are shown in an Art Deco tea-set, and Cecily and Gwendolen’s 1920s dresses, so Lady Bracknell (excellent Bex Greenway, avoiding any reference to well-known predecessors in the role) speaks in the mannered style of her period while the young quartet have the freer accents of the Jazz Age.
Helen Purdue is a delight as Cecily Cardew, precocious and naive, and demonstrating her dancer’s skill in her beautifully affected movement. Joni Clowrey is a great match for her, as the bossy but love-struck Gwendolen – a warmer performance than this character sometimes gets.
Philip White makes the most of Ernest and the choreography of his scenes with Ben Denham’s laid-back Algie is hilarious.
Harriet Bajorat is an unusually young and emotional Prism – there is no reason why she should be more than early 40s, rather than the grey-haired 60-something spinster she is usually portrayed, and she is, after all, the author of a sentimental three-volume novel, so there is a tide of feeling waiting to be unleashed! Jack Roper is very funny as Dr Chasuble, and less pompous than usual.
There was additional period entertainment for the audience from the singing footmen (Shaftesbury’s a capella group The Spoonfeds) and the Phoenix Cafe Orchestra playing in the interval.