Touring – reviewed at the Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton
The Original Theatre Company reaches the end of its UK Earnest tour at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatre this week and the much performed, vintage, comedy still makes you chuckle. Oscar Wilde’s beautifully written satire, stuffed with his most quotable epigrams, is less a story about class, love and deception and more the writer’s declarations on life.
The Importance of Being Earnest is arguably the writer’s most popular show which can result in all sorts of pressures for theatre companies and directors who decide to revive the production. How to make it fresh? How to deliver a show that engages and delights? How to deliver that all-important, iconic line “A handbag!” without it sounding like a parody?
Director Alastair Whatley is a bit heavy handed with the comedy. His highly animated cast delivers the laughs by over-emphasising their dialogue as if for an audience that is hard of hearing. It works well in a farce but Wilde is too subtle for that. This satire, ridiculing the hypocrisy of Victorian society, can rely on its sublime finely-written language for laughs.
Overall it is a good, if uneven, workman-like production that struggles, at times, to be funny. It delivers the goods without any flourishes of inspiration. Television favorite Gwen Taylor lacks gravitas as the indomitable Lady Bracknell. Her voice is light and bubbly instead of steeling and intimidating. Frankly, she wouldn’t frighten a mouse. And Downton Abbey’s Thomas Howes plays the indolent Algie Moncrieff as Bunteresque rather than a suave dandy.
He seems more interested in scoffing sandwiches than making the most of the mouth-watering lines he has been given.
Similarly, Peter Sandys-Clarke presents a rather dull man-about-town, Jack Worthing. He’s a bit of a drip and not the sort to concoct an elaborate scheme to lead a double life.
The production doesn’t raise its game until the arrival of the engaging Louise Coulthard who plays the cheeky, utterly delightful, heiress, Cecily Cardew, teenage ward of Worthing’s and future love interest of Montcrieff.
She has a remarkable delivery with her lines soaring up and down the vocal scale in wild abandon. She’s a breath of fresh air in this rather over-stuffed production.
Worthing, who, as we all know, was left in a handbag at a large railway terminus, grew up never knowing his origins.
But now, a mature adult, he has an estate in the country where he cares for the naive Cecily, and is known as Jack, and a townhouse in fashionable Mayfair, where he is known as Earnest, and lives the life of a carefree bachelor.
His best friend, Algie, does the same sort of thing. He has invented a country friend, Bunbury, who is forever ill and must be attended.
However, the lives of both men come a cropper when they fall in love with two young women who insist that they can only love men called Earnest.
Veteran actress, Susan Penhaligon, provides some additional light relief as the governess, Miss Prism, who here is a sex-starved dipsomaniac, always taking sly swigs from a hip-flask and breathlessly flirting with the vicar.
But, overall, This Earnest looks tired.
Running on the Royal stage until Saturday.
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