Writer: Oscar Wilde
Director: Alastair Whatley
Reviewer: Bill Avenell
What a wonderful conceit it is that a relationship should be founded upon a name and what a wickedly witty script Oscar Wilde produces to lure audiences into that conceit. But alas the input of the author is the only really wonderful part of the Original Theatre Company’s production of this famous play currently playing in Guildford before embarking on a UK Tour.
The plot is gloriously far-fetched. It involves two members of the idle rich both bent on having their own way in life by inventing a fictional brother, Earnest, and an imaginary friend, Bunbury, the existence of whom allows them to move between a life in the country and in town whenever they wish. They both fall in love with girls desirous of marriage to someone called Earnest and they both have seemingly insuperable family obstacles to the achievement of marital bliss.
The main problem is that pacey delivery and clear diction is essential if the audience is to appreciate the full force of Wilde’s wit but here the delivery is not pacey and the diction is certainly not clear. Moreover, these shortcomings are exacerbated by the fact that with all those ghosts of famous past performers of such a well-known play standing in the wings it is inevitable, if unfair, that comparisons are made and in this case the comparisons are largely unfavourable. The exception here is Thomas Howes whose portrayal of the unbearably smug and cynical Algernon Moncrieff keeps the show ambling along, but ambling is not enough. So often the enjoyment of Wilde’s ideas comes from snappy exchange between two different characters and unfortunately in nearly every case in this performance the snap is missing. In particular, and disastrously given that it is such a pivotal role, whenever Gwen Taylor as the domineering and self-opinionated Lady Bracknell appears proceedings virtually grind to a halt.
Alastair Whatley the director must take his share of the blame for this lack of pace and swallowing of words and to make matters even worse the performance is blessed with two intervals. This conspires to slow the proceedings down even more, although, the up-side is that at least it allows the three acts to be conducted in designer Gabriella Slade’s atmospheric sets of drawing room, garden and library.
Nothing can completely diminish Wilde’s clever and rapier-like wit and there is much to laugh at even with all these shortcomings but, that said, this is not the finest performance of Wilde’s wittiest play by a long chalk.
Runs until 3 February 2018 then UK Tour | Image: The Other Richard