first night

The Importance of Being Earnest

Joe Skelton sees Ooook play their Wilde card


A queue stretching down the street heralded a full house for Ooook's opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest. This audience - a testament to the fantastic publicity of the show and Wilde's enduring appeal - posed a challenge, which Ooook met admirably. Phillipe Bosher, playing the sharp tongued Algernon, took the stage with fitting frivolity and used the enormous energy of the audience to his advantage. He showed a particular agility of figure and of phrase, quick footed and quick witted, he was the driving force of the first Act. Chaz Pitman also gave a solid performance and presented an affable Jack Worthing. Pitman had a simple, boyish charm, which played well off Bosher's debonair and devious Algernon. The quick repartee between Pitman and Bosher was well managed and timed with Bosher gliding competently over Wilde's tongue twisting lines. He quickly found a fluid rhythm and brought a much-needed clarity to this confusing play, which could easily have left the audience behind if any of the lines were thrown away. Fortunately, few words escaped our ears and the text was generally delivered with clarity and polish.

It was precisely through this clarity that Wilde's scintillating script was allowed to shine - to the great enjoyment of the bustling crowd. Director Kate Wilkinson took an approach that allowed the text to speak for itself and the comedy of the script was most assuredly well received. It seemed, however, the cast sometimes fell back on the wonderfully written text and let it do the work for them, instead of playing around and being innovative with the lines. Moments when the actors added humorous physical gestures or details of their own to the text usually added a welcome colour.

To oppose Bosher's liveliness came the equally large stage presence of Abigail Weinstock, playing Lady Bracknell with energy and exuberance. Although melodramatic, one could argue that this part demands nothing less and one must give credit to Weinstock for being one of the comic highlights of the show in her withering condescension. Lydia Brown portrayed a particularly reserved and haughty Gwendolen who played off Meg Osborne's childish vitality that well suited the naive Cecily.

The production, rightly, took on a melodramatic tone. However, there were times when the performances felt too external and without the required sincerity of feeling. Wilde didn't intend this to be a play about interiority, as Lady Bracknell comments, 'We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces.’ However, I believe the play is robbed of some of its power if we do not, at times, believe and invest in its characters despite their ridiculousness.

Neil Robinson's portrayal of the manservant Lane was the welcome dose of straight-faced comedy, suitably downplayed, that the play needed. It was a feature of the play, for all its successes, that the actor's fell into the temptation to force the characters a little too far. It was refreshing to see a performance a little more delicately presented. The play is of course a farce but there's a danger with this high-spirited form to play it all on one level and the play may well have been enhanced by some moments of careful poise. Indeed, by the final Act the actor's seemed to be running out of steam - the high octane farce a little too hard to maintain throughout. This is not to say, however, that the production didn't reach a highly satisfying conclusion. The actors had the audience engaged and laughing till the last moment.

The set was certainly impressive. Set Design team Kacey Courtney, Verity Ayre and Technical Director Rachael Sharp should be praised for managing to convincingly create the facade of a brick house laced with roses looking onto a believable garden complete with pergola and patio furniture. The stage looked fantastic. However, Wilkinson could have utilised more of its depth; there were times when the set might as well have been 2D as the cast were arranged almost in a line from one pillar of the proscenium arch to the other, giving the scene a sense of artificiality.

But artifice is perhaps not wholly unasked for in this play. It is a work, which alerts us to this fact by its absurdly neat ending; self consciously revelling in a fictitious solution to life's problems. It felt as though the cast were having great fun with the script and their sense of enjoyment was infectious. From early on the audience were laughing heartily and this continued right through to the final curtain. This is, after all, a comedy's primary objective and Ooook fulfilled this with wonderful gusto. All the proceeds are being donated to Barnado's children's charity, and with the ticket revenue of a full house this shall be a sizable donation - a truly brilliant accomplishment. The audience left uplifted and contented, which, in all earnestness, is the whole point. 

8 November 2013

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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