first night

The Importance of Being Earnest

David Knowles is underwhelmed by Green Door Theatre Company's production of Oscar Wilde's Victorian comedy.

The Importance of Being Earnest is undoubtedly one of the most influential and important plays of the 19th century so I was intrigued to see if Green Door Theatre Company would create something dramatically engaging and, above all, amusing.  My experience of the production was mixed. It raises many smirks and the occasional laugh but ultimately fails to live up to the great expectations of putting on such a well-known classic.

The choice of location is certainly inspired, the lofty and light atmosphere of Chad’s quad lending itself perfectly to the show. The set is relatively simple, well designed and complimented the surroundings. The costumes looked fantastic and, combined with the location and set, created a wonderful backdrop to the play.

A few actors managed to bring something fresh to the show and their parts. Megan Brownrigg’s coy Gwendolen drew several awkward laughs and her female counterpart Cecily, played by Hannah Schofield-Newton was often convincingly dainty and romantic. Russell Park and Robert Smith were suitably sardonic and uptight in their roles as the butlers Lane and Merriman.

Some of the interplay between the actors is also pleasingly quick and sharp. The scene where Gwendolen and Cecily are introduced to each other, find out they seem to be marrying the same man and try to out-snub the other stood out. Both actresses carefully advance the sarcastic tone stage by stage raising the stakes with every insult. Brownrigg and Schofield-Newton must be complimented for the convincing manner in which their characters interacted and the way in which the coy Gwendolen offsets the young and romantically-minded Cecily. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the two estranged brothers Algernon and Jack (played by Charlie Oulton and Ollie Davies). Although the two did create several delightful moments of drama, too often they failed to work with each other. Rather than bouncing off the other’s lines, the two seem to act as individuals; Oulton often not even looking at Davies but letting his eyes range around the stage and audience. Davies himself is let down by his underdeveloped character. I was never at any point able to buy into his back story which, in a comedy with a faintly preposterous storyline, is very important.

Catherine Brydges gave a solid performance as the matriarch Lady Bracknell and had an impressive stage presence but also a distracting habit of fiddling with whatever prop she was holding and letting her eyes dart nervously to the audience every time one of her lines drew a laugh (which was often, so well written are many of her speeches). Eoin Longworth initially gave a convincingly awkward performance as the local vicar and raised the biggest laugh of the afternoon in his first scene. Unfortunately what was convincing awkwardness soon turned to plain awkwardness as he clearly struggled to remember some of his lines. Kirsten Lees (playing the governess Miss Prism) created an engaging character and her revelation of Jack’s abandonment as a baby was convincing and well delivered.

Unfortunately there were just too many problems, large and small, for me to engage fully with this production. The wonderfully stylised set is let down by small incongruities; the teapot that poured only water, the watering can (which was a teapot) that poured nothing  at all and the diaries which clearly had nothing written in them being some examples. Worst of all is the thoroughly modern sound system which sat in plain view and played no role whatsoever apart from a brief five second introduction to the play. None of this would have mattered had the acting and direction been of a consistently high standard.

For me however, none of the actors manage to break free of the ‘Victorian caricature’. Rather than seeing characters develop and react to each other, mannerisms and amusingly upper class accents dominate. Unfortunately, the correct pronunciation of ‘perambulator’ or an attractively naive pout does not make a character. This lack of character development deeply affects the show; frankly, I was not convinced by Algernon’s sudden pronouncement of love or Jacks ruminations on his childhood. And because I was not convinced by them, I couldn’t find them as nearly as funny as I would have liked.

Furthermore, in many of the wordier scenes the actors seemed constrained by blunt direction that made the play static, hugely sapping the dramatic tension.  I’m not suggesting that the actors should be constantly moving around, but sitting or standing stock still for extended periods of time badly affected the pace of the show and thus many amusing lines and moments were completely missed by the cast and the audience.

To conclude, although there were moments of wit where Wilde’s comic genius shone through, the play was let down by its erratic pace, stilted direction and a lack of character development that permeated the entire cast. All things considered, a brave attempt to conquer a classic that came close to succeeding and a delightful way to spend a wet Saturday afternoon.

19 June 2011

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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