Director: Michael Lunney
Reviewer: Jenni Dixon
Middle Ground Theatre Company presents Oscar Wilde’s comedy The Importance of Being Earnest to the Connaught Theatre in Worthing. Since 1988 they have been producing “classic” drama such as Dial M for Murder, An Inspector Calls and The Return of Sherlock Holmes to name but a few.
During this three act performance, the audience is transported back to Victorian British society in the summer of 1895 through an elaborately decorated set; Algernon Moncrieff’s flat. Complete with chaise longue and heavy drapes Algernon (Jim Alexander) and Mr Jack Worthing (Tom Butcher) are awaiting the arrival of Moncrieff’s Aunt, Lady Bracknell (Diane Fletcher) and her daughter Miss Gwendolen Fairfax (Corrine Wicks). During some philosophical discussion between the men about the nature of marriage and the married state, Jack announces that he plans to propose to Miss Fairfax. He gets the opportunity to when the women arrive and Algernon takes Lady Bracknell to his music room to discuss her next social engagements repertoire. From here, Lady Bracknell disapproves of the union and it becomes apparent that the two young gentlemen have taken to bending the truth in order to put some excitement into their lives. Jack Worthing has invented a brother, Earnest, whom he uses as an excuse to leave his dull country life behind to visit the ravishing Gwendolyn. Algernon Moncrieff decided to take the name ‘Earnest’ when visiting Worthing’s young and beautiful ward, Cecily at the country manor. Things start to go awry when they end up together in the country and their deceptions are discovered – threatening to spoil their romantic pursuits. Lady Bracknell is an over bearing, rather mercenary and snobbish woman concerned with suiting her daughter to her list of eligible bachelors. Fletcher portrays the character to a tee, which makes Bracknell a perfectly delivered narrow-minded snob with her unintentional humour and authoritarian values of ignorance. As the protagonist, Butcher’s performance too cannot be faltered. Although Algy Moncrieff is a charming but idle young man, Alexander’s portrayal gave him a rather sleazy quality and it became impossible to connect with the character as he continuously broke the fourth wall looking into the audience and directing his concentration from the interaction with his colleagues, as if looking for some outside recognition for his efforts. Corrine Wicks gives a fantastic tongue in cheek edge to Gwendolen who comes across as an intelligent, sophisticated cosmopolitan type, but completely pretentious. Wicks manages to keep that pretentious quality throughout ensuring Miss Fairfax a good few (intentional) laughs. Miss Cecily Cardew (Sapphire Elia) is as pure as an English rose and Elia gives Miss Cardew the right balance of unspoiled innocence and fascination with wickedness. Sapphire’s delivery was unstrained and rather natural, being one of the only characters not to speak in epigrams.
Gerry Hinks as Lane and Merriman, who plays the two butlers at each home, the country estate and Algernon’s flat, had some great one liners and is very clearly “in on the joke” and secret lives of Worthing and Moncrieff but too polite/well-trained to get involved. Miss Prism (Sarah Thomas) and Rev Canon Chasuble (David Gooderson) give equally stellar performances.
Each Act has a short interval between which gives time for the sets to be changed. Each one as equally elaborate as the next and all completely fill the stage adding to the sense of grandeur and time period. From Mr Moncrieff’s day room, the Garden at the country manor and the drawing room in the manor, each help transport you to a time gone by; full of Victorian notions of respectability and notoriety. The costumes too are beautifully created and fitting for each character. Lighting is very simple and mostly unchanging.
With underlying themes of the ideals of marriage, constraints of morality and inventiveness, this is one of Wilde’s most clever works. This play has been performed since 1895 in various forms but it still manages to speak volumes today. Whether you care to relate to these characters for the double lives they lead, connect with their outlook on life, pretentiousness or senses of morality, it cannot be misunderstood as a well performed, funny, pun-filled, and extremely witty enactment of Victorian high society.