The Original Theatre Company has produced an enjoyable and charming new version of Oscar Wilde’s most famous play, his last work before scandal disrupted his successful career as a writer, playwright and raconteur.
The Importance of Being Earnest, on at the Cambridge Arts Theatre through Saturday, contained were some strong, impressive performances, stylish sets and colourful, perfectly-suited period costumes in this production.
Gwen Taylor (of Coronation Street fame) as Lady Bracknell and Hannah Louise Howell as Gwendolen are by far the stars of this show with wonderful performances. Lady Bracknell is imposing, haughty, snobby and undoubtedly in charge, while Gwendolen is the perfect sophisticated young town lady, but with a mind of her own. Algy’s line 'All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his,' is resonant of this Gwendolen, where we get an inkling of the woman she will become.
The play revolves around the entangled romances of friends Algernon and Jack, both of whom are known to their fiancées as Ernest. Throw in an abandoned baby, overbearing aunt, a novel-writing governess, Bunburying and a bumbling country Curate and you have all sorts of situations evolving. Coupled with Wilde’s witty dialogue, tangled plots and one-liners and we can expect a treat. This is such a well-balanced script, with strong characters for both men and women and good supporting roles.
As the curtain lifted on Algernon’s living room, the stylish and cleverly designed set was revealed with glass and metallic dividing panels and backdrop and period furniture setting the scene. The same backdrop was cleverly dressed in subsequent acts, with the garden scene working really well with cream iron work furniture and plants. Great attention was paid to detail and this also showed with the costumes, which were perfect with differential between town and country, status and colour co-ordination for the couples.
In Act 1 we meet the foppish, idle Algernon Moncrieff, draped across the sofa eating cucumber sandwiches and his slightly more responsible friend Ernest Worthing, with some great characterisation and chemistry from Thomas
Howes and Peter Sandys-Clarke as the bantering bachelors. Ernest is in love with Algy’s cousin Gwendolen, who is due for tea, accompanied by her mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell.
The story unfolds as Algy probes to discover why Ernest's lighter is inscribed ‘to Uncle Jack from Little Cecily’. Who is Jack and, more intriguingly, Cecily? There are some laddish scuffles to go with the banter in this scene. We discover that Ernest is the name he uses for town and Jack is his real name. His cover is his fictional, badly-behaved brother, Ernest, while Cecily is his ward, whom Algy is now overly-curious to meet.
When Gwendolen announces her engagement to Ernest, the fun begins as Lady Bracknell interrogates Ernest for suitability. All is well until he reveals his unknown origins, found by his guardian in a handbag at Victoria Station. This of course is one of the most famous scenes, with some of the wittiest repartee. 'To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness” and of course the inimitable line 'A handbag!.' Gwen Taylor made this scene her own, with scoffing hauteur and sneering laughter making Jack squirm, as his dream of marrying Gwendolen is crushed.
Act 2 - Jack’s country home, where we meet Cecily and her governess, Miss Prism in the garden. The plot unfolds as first Algernon arrives, impersonating the wayward Ernest. Cecily has long had a crush on him and they become engaged. Meanwhile Gwendolen arrives and meets Cecily. When they discover they are both engaged to Ernest Worthing, their initially cordial relationship deteriorates rapidly.
While the chemistry between Algy and Cecily is good, Louise Coulthard’s Cecily was a tad too obvious, although this improved in the final act.
The tea scene, when Cecily and Gwendolen fall out, is supposed to be subtle barbs within the boundaries of polite society, the staging was too panto-esque with stomping and petulant dumping of cake, but a minor point in an otherwise excellent evening’s entertainment.
In the final act, Lady Bracknell joins the fray and Miss Prism is summoned for the big reveal. 'Prism, where is that baby?' This act was played extremely well by all as we move from two frustrated engagements to the ending, with Lady Bracknell again holding centre stage and excellent support from Jack and Miss Prism.
There was a small audience, whether because these older style plays are out of fashion and not taught in schools, or due to it being early in the week is hard to say, but disappointing for the players and for wider audience reaction. Wilde’s masterpiece is well worth seeing.