Vaudeville Theatre, London – until 27 November 2015
A HANDBAG? A WHOLE TRUNKFUL OF TREATS
The heart sinks beforehand: Oscar Wilde’s sunny comedy melodrama is too familiar: skipping from one well-worn epigram to the next, from handbag to muffin, butler to Bracknell until a theatregoing audience can be tempted to join in. Directors have tried every resuscitation technique – play-within-a-play, high-speed cutting, star casting, unexpected crooked sets – with no guarantee that it’ll work. But this time, Adrian Noble and his cast pull it off, and the old dear comes up fresh as a daisy, in sets of such traditionally gorgeous Edwardiana that they get their own round of applause, and without any gimmicks at all. Unless you count casting David Suchet as Lady Bracknell: and that is not a gimmick, but a welcome extension of the great man’s ability to rule a stage with one twitch of his black, black brows.
And Suchet – we’ll come to him in a moment – is not carrying the burden alone. The whole production is marked by a nimble comic delicacy, smart body language and thoughtful line-by-line work on emphasis which often brings up the old jokes scrubbed clean, jerking us into surprised laughter. Algernon and Jack – Philip Cumbus and Michael Benz – handle the banter of the opening scene without either stylized “I’m doing Wilde” crispness or undue modernization, just as naturally as a brace of Top Gear mates whose natural communication is only in jokes. Imogen Doel’s Cecily is priceless, cooing and scampering with a steely girlish feyness and spot-on physical timing, Emily Barber’s Gwendolen stiffly fashionable in contrast: every inch her mother’s daughter, so that one trembles for poor Jack’s marital future.
And at the heart of that central garden scene is the best comedy courtship of the year (possibly the decade) as Michele Dotrice’s unmatchable Miss Prism yearns and writhes and skips like a lovesick hippo towards the equally fearful Canon Chasuble, an unrecognizably rebarbative Richard O’Callaghan, who from limp grey mullet to skinny gaiters is everything that the satirical Wilde could have desired him to be.
And David Suchet’s Lady Bracknell? Heroically upholstered, threateningly wigged and hatted in the sweltering first night heat, he deploys a masterclass in how to revive too-familiar lines. Everyone was waiting for “A handbag!” so he denied it to us, throwing it away, loosing the explosive moment instead on the earlier word “Found???”. Other moments of cherishable Suchet-stress lie scrawled on my pad as -“What?’ “Parcel!” “Prism!”. The calculating gimlet eyes and overdone hauteur – suddenly melted by mention of money – place the character, without any pretentious actorly deepening, precisely where the laughing clear-eyed Irishman wanted it. This is what he saw around him: a socially defensive society parvenue in a carapace of confidence. When she speaks of “social outrage” and the French Revolution, her gloved hand flutters momentarily to her neck.
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