Writers: Oscar Wilde and Simon Brett
Director: Lucy Bailey
Reviewer: Jon Wainwright
However much the theatregoer is aware that this is not an altogether conventional production of Oscar Wilde’s great, final play, it is still something of a shock to see Nigel Havers walk onstage as Algernon Moncrieff in a pair of red trainers. His period costume is otherwise immaculate, and entirely in keeping with William Dudley’s magnificent set design (a meticulous re-creation of a house built in the 1890s in the Arts and Craft style). In fact, this is Nigel Havers playing Richard (Dicky) Oldfield playing Algernon Moncrieff, and we are watching a rehearsal by the Bunbury Company of Players in George and Lavinia Spelman’s delightful house in the village of Morton St Cuthbert.
The framing device of the Bunbury Players is a playful conceit that takes the lid off theatre, giving us a brief glimpse of how it works, and how it sometimes doesn’t (watch out for the famous cucumber sandwiches). Also revealed are the ambitions and emotions that are usually safely tucked away backstage. The actors themselves, it seems, have lives of their own, and their own back stories: the aftermath of Dicky’s affairs with several of the female Players, for example, is still a cause of some upset. There are prima donnas even in the provinces: Cherie Lunghi plays the confident Maria Clifford (imperious as Gwendolen Fairfax), who denies she’s put on weight (the costume must have shrunk) and likes to remind anyone within earshot that she once worked at the National.
Siân Phillips is Lavinia Spelman, formidable grande dame and a founding member of the Company, who naturally takes the part of Lady Bracknell and fits it like a glove. She is practicing the handbag line when she first enters (and already has it nailed), and then switches smoothly out of character to issue orders to her husband (Phillips creates a subtle difference in delivery even though, in many respects, the characters of Lavinia and Lady Bracknell are identical).
In any other production, Martin Jarvis would be gloriously miscast as the 29-year-old John Worthing, but here, as Anthony Scottney, ‘the guiding spirit’ behind the Bunbury Players and an amateur actor so versatile he can commandeer rôles as diverse as John Proctor and Widow Twankey, he is perfect. In his programme essay, a brief history of the Players, Scottney is not afraid to compare the growing pains of his Company with those of the National Theatre, and, inevitably, he quotes the ‘immortal Bard’ to illustrate the importance of ‘Bunburying’ – the art of inventing characters whose ‘lights flicker for a few short nights on a stage and then are seen no more.’
As rehearsals go, this one is very impressive, and lovers of Wildean wit will not be disappointed: the aphorisms are here in abundance and carried off with verve and élan. Even Scottney would have to admit we have caught his Company on a very good night.
The play’s subtitle is A Trivial Comedy for Serious People and Simon Brett’s additional material definitely veers towards the trivial side of the equation (there’s even good old-fashioned physical comedy as the Assistant Stage Manager carries a ladder across stage, for no particular reason, pausing to swing it 180° so the whole cast has to duck, twice). The conceit is brilliantly accomplished in every detail (down to the typographical solecism of the shadow font used in one of the programme’s fake ads). Brett’s satire of a Home Counties drama group, however, and perhaps not surprisingly, pales besides Wilde’s satire of the aristocracy and late Victorian society. As a result, and despite a wonderful cast and Lucy Bailey’s direction, the overall effect is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.
Running until 18th October