DramaNorth WestReview

The Importance of Being Earnest- The Opera House, Manchester

Writer: Oscar Wilde

Director: Alastair Whatley

Designer: Gabriella Slade

Reviewer: Dave Cunningham

It has been a long, brutal winter and we are all desperate for something cheerful and bright. Recognising a cue The Original Theatre Company offers Oscar Wilde’s evergreen classic The Importance of Being Earnest.

The works of Oscar Wilde defy innovations; updating the setting to the present day simply would not work and no one dares to mess with the text. Therefore, the opportunities for director Alastair Whatley to shape the production are limited. Whatley concentrates on visual flourishes and sight gags. Each Act opens with the cast frozen in a silent pose. A maid can be seen having a quick fag and Susan Penhaligon’s Miss Prism is clearly sneaking a crafty drink during her lectures. It is a restrained approach that enhances, rather than distracts from, the text. 

Gabriella Slade’s designs both add to the humour and provide a lush background. Thomas Howes’s louche Algernon and Gwen Taylor’s Lady Bracknell are dressed in striking shades of, respectively, green and lavender. However, the whacking great bustle on the dress worn by Taylor serves also to emphasise Lady Bracknell’s imposing physical presence while her hat, which looks like a squashed mushroom, must surely be intended for comedy purposes. Alan Valentine brings a hint of summer on the horizon by dousing the art deco set in warm lighting.

In terms of performance, the women actors dominate the show. Kerry Ellis, an actor more associated with musical roles, is in fine predatory form as Gwendolen. As Cecily has led a sheltered life Louise Coulthard interprets the role as someone who has read about, but never experienced, passion and is unsure how to behave but desperate to have a go. Coulthard constantly striking stilted poses and speaking in an affected breathless manner like a character from a Gothic romance, makes for a funny but vulnerable performance.

The most surprising approach is that of Gwen Taylor who completely avoids the traditional interpretation of making Lady Bracknell a two-dimensional monster. Taylor gives Lady Bracknell a strong sense of the ridiculous and delivers well-worn dialogue as if she has just conceived the lines on the spot. When Jack Worthing reveals that, as a baby, he was abandoned in a handbag instead of being appalled and scandalised Taylor is amused and bursts into incredulous laughter. One might argue the approach does not accord with the text but it certainly makes for a fresh approach and a very human character.

Yet despite fine performances and design, The Original Theatre Company’s production feels a little underpowered. At The Opera House audibility was an issue for Howes and Taylor and having to strain to hear the speeches hinders concentration. Although director Whatley adds the occasional visual gag he seems less confident in exploiting the comic potential of the storyline. The entrance of Jack Worthing in full Victorian mourning gear ought to raise a belly-laugh as the audience anticipates what is about to happen but tonight the scene falls flat. Alastair Whatley’s pacing is poor and he does not build to a climax so that each Act ends in a puzzlingly low-key manner rather than on the comic punchline or plot point that one might have expected.

Runs until 17th March 2018 | Image: Contributed

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Understated masterpiece

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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