Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

Heartbreak Theatre , Abergavenny Castle , August-11-05
This review first appeared in the Western Mail...

It used to be Shakespeare, then Restoration comedy and now it’s Oscar Wilde: the fare offered by the various outfits touring to castles and other summer venues is creeping ever closer to contemporary drama. Who says it won’t be Samuel Beckett by next year, followed by Joe Orton, and Sarah Kane by the end of the decade ?

In fact Heartrbreak’s version of this most popular of Wilde’s plays is brought even closer by setting it at the outbreak of World War 2 – another new trend it would seem.

But, like The Stageworks’s Twelfth Night, the relocation in history doesn’t do that much, except to suggest that Wilde (or his characters) was a bit of a xenophobe , with all those anti-German jokes made the more noticeable by prefacing the production with sound clips from September 1939.

One suspects, in fact, that the indolent rich satirised by Wilde were more likely to be sympathetic to Wagner and Schiller and German philosophy, certainly their 1930s counterparts, so I wasn’t sure that Maddy Kerr’s production was much more than a gimmick until we heard the sounds of warfare and jackboots at the very end, as the silly, frivolous characters silently danced their silly, frivolous Thirties dances: somehow that indictment of the aristocracy, with their obsession with the superficial and with status, did seem very potently persuasive.

Wilde was much more interested in class and convention than politics, national or international, and The Importance of Being Earnest remains a classic satire on the ruling classes and the idea of “society”, and one that is entertainingly done by the self-styled “premiere professional open-air theatre company”, to close this year’s Abergavenny Festival.

A towering Algie from Alan Atkins and a physically imposing Lady Bracknell from Ms Kerr herself (who coped well with the “A handbag !” moment) dominated the production but the company has strength in depth, with first-timer Alec Walters creating three very different and very funny minor characters and Erika Sanderson a delightfully flirty-yet-frumpy Miss Prism.

And the marvellous two-hander scene between Penny Scott-Andrews’s Gwendolen and Samatha Drew’s Cecily, always a comic highspot, earned a spontaneous round of applause from the Abergavenny audience.

I felt, however, the time disjunction was exposed in the casting of the central character Jack/Earnest, with Lawrence Stubbings sounding possibly 1930s, but not Victorian Wilde, which is how the rest of the cast played it, despite the pretence that this was 1939.

My other quibble is with the amplification which, here at least, was unnecessary and distracting, especially when the mikes picked up extraneous sounds: a company as competent and experienced as this shouldn’t need it.

But Ms Kerr and the gang have generally done another fine job – it’s well-paced, gets most of the laughs and works OK on the small stage. A sunny evening, a lovely venue, a fair crowd and another bottle of plonk to ameliorate any critical punctiliousness.

Reviewed by: David Adams

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