Tonight’s production at the New Theatre was a feast of dramatic treats for the expectant audience. It’s rare to see so many people cram themselves into the diminutive auditorium and they were not in the least disappointed. ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is a consummate comedy. It is mature, well constructed, it has a feeling of solidity in craftsmanship. The audience is launched into an absurd world of careless wit and conflated intrigue. It is never easy to do such a well known play, but Tommo Fowler and his cast have achieved a production that is at once novel and dogmatic.
This is not to say that it is without fault. There were moments that dragged due to a loss of energy and some suspect decisions. There were several moments that felt severely over-egged, lines that fell flat and laughs that were missed. This is a shame, but as ever we can put down to first night syndrome. I very much hope that as the nerves recede the actors will file down the rough edges of their characterisations.
Perhaps Oscar Wilde’s most famous piece of writing, this play follows the lives of Jack (Simon Foster) and Algie (David Cornish); two friends who have invented convenient lies in order to spend time elsewhere to where they ought to be. Algie has coined this delightful pastime, ‘Bunburying’ and uses information gleaned through an overheard conversation between Jack, who is masquerading as his invented brother Earnest, and his beloved Gwendolen (Natalie Barclay), to make a surprise visit to Jack’s country estate under the guise of this same miscreant, Earnest, with the intent of seducing his ward Cecily Cardew (Laura Tomson). When Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell (Lucy Butler) also arrive hilarity ensues as Jack and Algie’s deceit, and Jack’s mysterious past unravels.
There are some beautiful caricatures in this performance, particularly from Cornish who has crafted the facetious Algie with brilliant care. There are some brilliant touches to his character which is sculpted to a fine point, the completeness of which is particularly noticeable in the moments where he has little to say. The relationship between Algie and Jack in the first scene is perhaps the highlight of this performance rivalled by the ornately choreographed sequence between Cecily and Gwendolen later on. Lady Bracknell is brilliantly outrageous her pronouncements never failing to fill the seats with laughter. The relationship between Dr. Chasuble (Robert Jones) and Miss Prism (Frances Rylands) had elements of hilarity that are extra to the script. They were able to translate the sexual frustration with real virtuosity. This however did sometimes stray into the ridiculous and was perhaps overplayed slightly at moments, which dropped the tension and humour of certain scenes. Lane / Merryman (James Townend) was an unfaultable character study. His dry wit and ineluctably comical expressions were fantastic. The switch between Lane and Merryman achieved through the complex makeup technique of adding a fake moustache drew one of the loudest laughs of the night.
This being said it was impossible not to see the difficulty of a play that relies so heavily on perfect timing in the delivery. Occasionally some of the lines delivered were not able to set the audience laughing as they might have. When this happened unfortunately the dynamism of the scenes tended to slump. There were awkward moments that left me puzzled, and I’m sure other audience members confused, thus siphoning the humour. This script is so lavishly layered with humour that to miss any seems a shame.
The staging and lighting, prop-work and general production elements are some of the best that you will see at the New Theatre. Prepare to be impressed by the sliding set which drew a gasp from the delighted audience. It was as audacious as the rest of this production and proved one of the highlights. One is instantly drawn into a sepia world of Victorian ostentation and opulence where life and love are things to be toyed with or played at. You cannot help but leave this play feeling happy.
The tagline of this play is ‘a trivial comedy for serious people’. I would describe it as a serious comedy for anyone with a sense of humour. This is a play that will not disappoint and I would wholeheartedly urge everyone to go and see it.