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The Importance of Being Earnest – New Theatre, Cardiff

Writer: Oscar Wilde

Director &Designer: Michael Lunney

Music: Mat Larkin

Reviewer: Barbara Michaels

[Rating:3.5]

Perhaps no other classic comedy is as more densely bestrewn with sparkling wit and acerbic one-liners than Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Who could ever forget Dame Edith Evans’ iconic portrayal of Lady Bracknell, and her immortal delivery of the famous line, “A handbag?” All the more credit then to the Middleground Theatre Company (the team behind Columbo: Prescription Murder and On Golden Pond) and designer and director Michael Lunney for daring to put forward their own take on the 19th Century epigrams first uttered on stage in 1895, and later made immortal by Dame Edith.

Wilde wrote the play as a satirical condemnation of Victorian values among the so-called upper classes and aristocracy. The plot centres around the antics of two men both pretending for different reasons to be someone named Ernest. Jack Worthing is a country gentleman living in the country with his ward Cecily Cardew, except when he is in London, where he is known in society as Ernest, and pays court to Gwendolen Fairfax. To complicate matters further, Gwendolen’s cousin Algernon Moncrieff adopts the name Ernest when he goes to stay at Jack’s country house, where he is smitten by Cecily’s girlish charms.

For any actress, playing what has become the pivotal rôle of the formidable Lady Bracknell can be daunting. Diane Fletcher’s performance is carefully pitched and has its bravura moments. However, there is a wariness leading up to the handbag scene which Fletcher needs to address, although under Lunney’s direction she almost succeeds in avoiding the problem by dodging the word itself. Fletcher’s command of the stage is low key until the final act, when she comes into her own as she utters the word “Prism!” with a forceful incredulity almost worthy of her illustrious predecessor.

The rôle of Jack Worthing is one that has received many different interpretations over the years. Tom Butcher, who audiences may remember as Dr. Marc Eliot in the BBC TV series Doctors, plays him with a touch of pathos at times – a novel idea which may work for some theatregoers. As Worthing, Butcher needs to assert more authority in scenes played in tandem with his opposite number the agreeable man-about-town Algernon Moncrieff (the other Ernest), played by Jim Alexander, and handled with a roguish touch that would, one feels, have met with Wilde’s approval. There is, though, the caveat that the innuendos which lie behind some of the dialogue are glossed over in this production, possibly with intent – or maybe not.

Sapphire Elia, a product of the renowned Sylvia Young Theatre School, is admirably cast as the ingénue Cecily Cardew, while opposite her the forceful Gwendolen Fairfax is played with evident relish by Corinne Wicks. The interaction between the two girls in acts two and three is one of the high points of this production. As with all comedy, timing is of the essence and Elia and Wicks have it down to a t.

With a change of scene for each act, Middleground have pulled out all the stops with a trompe l’oeil effect, enhanced by the clever use of backcloths, that does the business with a regard to period and a commendable flair, which makes a considerable contribution to what is overall a most enjoyable production

Runs until Saturday 10th November 2012.

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