Sizing up the lengthy queue for tickets before last night’s performance of The Importance of Being Earnest, it was clear that the promise of some Oscar Wilde humour was enough to lure Durham students out of their warm beds on a Thursday night. A wise choice by Ooook! Productions, I could only hope that the acting and direction would live up to the glorious work of my favourite playwright.
Set in late Victorian London, The Importance of Being Earnest is a delightful, farcical comedy in which the aristocratic protagonists maintain fictitious personæ in order to escape burdensome social obligations. Oscar Wilde himself named it ‘a trivial comedy for serious people’ and indeed very little actually happens in the play. The humour is to be found instead in the wit of the different characters, and so a successful production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ must rely heavily on the skill of its actors.
The cast did not disappoint. Phillipe Bosher played the roguish Algernon with enough charm to keep the snobbish character in favour with the audience. Although in the earlier scenes Bosher’s modulation was rather repetitive, by the second Act he had settled into the role and displayed a natural instinct for ad-lib reactions to the audience’s laughter, milking the witty verbal sparring in a manner that Wilde himself would be proud of.
Chaz Pitman also gave a solid performance as Jack Worthing, balancing Algernon’s audacity with an endearing wet-blanket English gentleman. Pitman looked comfortable on stage and moved around with confidence and purpose.
Of the many superb actors in the production, there were two dazzling performances given by Abigail Weinstock and Lydia Brown, playing Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen Fairfax. Weinstock’s facial expressions and unwavering characterization gave her an edge that Maggie Smith would have been proud of. Every line was clear and executed with energy, and she thoroughly deserved the plethora of cheers she received when taking her bow. Brown’s intelligent delivery brought the subtext to life as she squeezed every ounce of scandalous innuendo from her lines. Oozing a sexy self-confidence, she provided a strong female character that ran circles around her lovelorn fiancée-to-be. Keep an eye on Weinstock and Brown, they are freshers to watch.
Director Kate Wilkinson and her assistant Ryan West did a good job of keeping the actors moving around the stage, which gave the chatty characters a sense of activity (although there was perhaps a little too much flopping onto the squeaky sofa). The set and costumes were particularly impressive, and the minor issue of the on-set door refusing to stay closed was tackled with professionalism by the talented cast.
The pace slowed slightly at the end of the first act, but by the end of the third when all the actors were on stage together they bounced off each other and had fun with the script, showing a real understanding of theatrical comedy. Wilde’s writing can carry itself and illicit laughter from any audience, but the fantastic cast brought the play to life and kept all those watching in fits from start to finish. With profits going to Barnado’s charity (their website can be found here: http://www.barnardos.org.uk/), this production deserves a full house at every performance.