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Many years ago, I listened to a famous conductor talking on the radio about the problem of including well-known pieces in concert programmes. “To many in the audience,” he said, “a piece like Grieg’s Piano Concerto is a cliché. But we must never forget that, for many others, they are hearing it for the very first time.”
The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the best-known and best-loved plays in the canon. In fact, how many of us can’t recite most of the best lines along with the characters? Answer: a group of people in the row behind me who greeted each aphorism and each elegant witticism with surprised delight. And they weren’t the only ones in the audience. You could feel the warmth, the constant undercurrent of pleasure, the laughter ready to bubble from our lips.
And that is the strength of this production: it lets the play speak for itself, and doesn’t seek to patronise us. It’s delightfully free from directorial ‘concepts’ – in fact, the nearest it gets to the non-conventional is Mark Bailey’s extremely witty set.
Director Erica Whyman draws convincing performances out of all her actors — with one exception. But that exception can hardly be blamed. Maggie Steed makes a brave attempt to escape from The Curse of Edith Evans, and gives us a Lady Bracknell who is really quite endearing — even, at times, vulnerable. But she doesn’t live up to her description as ‘Gorgon’ and ‘monster’. And she certainly doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of all around her. For an actress, it’s an impossible situation to be in. Deliver the line “A handbag?” in that way, and you’ll be accused of a lack of imagination — even though the newcomers will fall about laughing, and most of the rest will revel in the familiarity of an old friend. Try to find a new way to deliver it, and you’re on a hiding to nothing. I wonder anyone ever accepts the part at all… Having said that, anyone who doesn’t know the Edith Evans version will be more than satisfied with Maggie Steed’s performance. (Note to Miss Steed: this is praising with faint praise, not damning…)
The two young men at the centre of the action are nicely delineated (though the early scenes could do with a little tightening up of cues). Dominic Rowan gives us a lounge-lizard Algernon who sums up the boredom of the fin de siècle man about town. Guy Lankester’s Jack Worthing strives to maintain a sense of responsibility in the face of his friend’s fecklessness, while being shamelessly manipulated by his intended, Gwendolen Fairfax — a spirited performance by Sally Phillips. In fact, Miss Phillips’s performance shows all the hallmarks of a generous actor. In the famous ‘taking tea’ scene, she is content to play the anchor to Amanda Hale’s butterfly Cecily, without losing anything of Gwendolen’s wordly-wise superiority.
It is newcomer Amanda Hale, however, fresh from RADA, who in many ways steals the show. Whether attempting to play an innocent teenage girl’s notion of how a vamp would behave, or drawing her Wicked Uncle Earnest into her own fantasy world, or waging war against her Deadly Rival Gwendolen, she is completely unselfconscious, continually inventive and constantly funny. (A little OTT for a sheltered Victorian maiden, perhaps — but she’s got plenty of time in which to learn.)
Anna Calder-Marshall makes a convincingly dithery Miss Prism, hinting at Margaret Rutherford while making the part completely her own, and is suitably paired with Christopher Godwin’s batty Canon Chasuble who, when about to conduct a christening, finds himself dressed like an explorer wearing a Baby Doll nightie.
The cast is completed by Julian Bleach, who plays both manservants (Lane and Merriman) with a lugubrious gravitas.
In the past few years, I’ve become weary of classics seeking to be ‘relevant’, of directors inventing improbable ‘concepts’ to impress their friends in the business. This Importance is a welcome antidote — and it was obvious that the packed house on the night I was in would agree with me.
The Oxford Playhouse’s recent policy of mounting their own in-house productions has, so far, been spectacularly successful, with a series of first class shows to their credit. Long may it continue.
Catch this production if you can.
Peter Mottley © 2005
Originally published on R&V 25-08-05
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