Church Hill Theatre until 1 April 2017
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
There is a studied air to Edinburgh People’s Theatre’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest that pays dividends, but also brings disadvantages. Wilde’s comedy of love, class, secret lives and imaginary invalids needs little introduction. Countless numbers who have never seen the play, or witnessed Edith Evans, know exactly how she pronounced one line, but such familiarity means that it is difficult to approach it afresh and can have unfortunate results.
Director Helen Hammond’s distinctly thoughtful approach here is an attempt to get away from some of the more extreme performances that have bedevilled the play in recent years – notably one high-profile touring version with big-name performers that essentially treated the play as a joke. This understated approach is praiseworthy, intelligent and thoroughly understandable. It gives the play a more modern feel, with some lines having an altogether different emphasis, but it does not always work.
With all of the (hand)baggage that the character of Lady Bracknell carries, it is difficult to see her as anything other than a monster. Helen E. Nix’s portrayal is more sympathetic and always interesting, with her description of her husband’s ‘ailment’, for example, surely sounding more like a lament and less like a criticism than it ever has done. The downside is that much of the humour is lost, with legendary lines like ‘rise, sir, from this semi-recumbent posture’ falling flat.
It is the bigger, more mannered performances that carry more weight. Stephanie Hammond’s Gwendolen is arch and vibrant enough to extract maximum humour from her protestation that she has never seen a spade. Graham Bell (a fidgety Canon Chasuble) and Beverley Wright (a Miss Prism located somewhere between Patricia Routledge and a startled rabbit) teeter on the edge of caricature but are all the more charming for it.
Mike Brownsell’s Algernon is the evening’s most successful performance. Often essayed as an archetypal upper-class twit, here he is much more complex, with a sneaky charm that is almost devilish and is entirely appropriate for the arch-Bunburyist and general leader of a double life. He also sails through a couple of potentially tricky episodes of acting while eating that have defeated so many.
Pat Hymers (Jack Worthing) is a suitable foil, with his attempts at respectability scuppered by his own role-playing; his visible exasperation at the obstacles placed in his path is particularly effective.
Kelly Simmonds (Cecily) grows visibly in confidence and poise as the evening progresses. Kevin Rowe takes on the dual roles of servants Lane and Merriman in the absence of John Somerville, but this is no real drawback; the roles are often doubled, and his careful differentiation of the two roles adds to the texture of the play.
Indeed, in the light of Wilde’s own life, many have drawn conclusions from the themes of secret lives and double identities; even if you do not buy into this subtext, it seems clear that the play needs a slightly more heightened and driven approach than it gets at times.
There are some clever pieces of physical business – but the fact that they get bigger laughs than most of the lines shows how flat some of it is. The set is spare and useful, but the apologetic way in which invisible doors are opened and closed reflects a lack of conviction; similarly, there are a couple of incidences of rhubarbing between characters that threaten to upstage the main action with their stilted peculiarity.
However, this production does get a lot right – especially compared to those aforementioned recent debacles. And most of what is wrong would be cured by the injection of pace which a couple more performances and a more responsive crowd would provide.