Theatre in Wales

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Engaging garish modernity

The Importance of Being Earnest

Jolly Roger Theatre Company , Y Morlan Aberystwyth , September 25, 2006
The Importance of Being Earnest by Jolly Roger Theatre Company The Jolly Roger Theatre Company, largely composed of final year drama students from Aberystwyth University, tackled an old theatrical favourite this month when they staged Oscar Wilde’s celebrated comedy of manners, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, in Aberystwyth’s Morlan Centre. Combining garish modernity with Wilde’s quintessentially late-Victorian text, they almost always stayed the right side of engaging and provided a variety of entertainment which Wilde had probably only secretly conceived of.

A fairly outlandish set, centring around a floor covering of green faux-fur (which doubled as drawing room carpet and lawn) caught the eye on entering the auditorium and never quite released its grip. The mixture of this and some quite staid, period furnishings did appear incongruous, but luckily the performances proved an engaging distraction, particularly after the rather noisome intrusion of the B-52s’ “Love Shack” as an opening sound cue, juxtaposed with the character of Algernon’s updated sideline as an amateur electric guitarist. The lighting design was well-intentioned and generally well-executed, giving a warm feeling to the entire play, though occasionally poor sightlines in this semi-round staging prevented a full evaluation.

Tim Newns and Hugh Edwards made an innovative double-act in their roles as Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing. Newns was almost excessively camp, though very entertaining, his style oddly reminiscent of the late Kenny Everett. This did, however, make it seem that he was singularly unlikely to get, or even want, the girl. He did settle into this role with comparative ease, though, and was always an intriguing joy to watch. Edwards did not always seem at ease with his role, an inconsistency which, though ultimately resolved with aplomb, was a concern. Physically, he encompassed the part admirably, and was a suitably anxious foil to Newns’ expertly languid Algernon.

Their opening scene was supported with hilariously dry servitude by Dan Frost as the butler Lane. Frost’s presence gave a gravity to an otherwise fey atmosphere, but always left you teetering on the brink of laughter, often pushing you right over the edge.

Rachel Crane’s Lady Bracknell proved an imposing presence, physically and vocally, and generally brought with it all the accepted character traits, and a few new ones. However, her prodigious and powerful lung capacity was done a disservice by the terminally echoey acoustics of the venue, and I felt she relied too heavily on audience asides. These concerns were, however, negated by an overwhelmingly warm audience reaction to a solid performance, even if the curious choice was made not to deliver the infamous ‘handbag’ line.

Amy Ross and Aidan Crowe as Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble were a delight to watch. Crowe was let down by his diction on several occasions, but his stooped, genial and often quite sexual cleric was a wonderful foil to Ross’s hysterically infatuated Miss Prism – a vision in floral cardigan, checked skirt and pop-socks.

Gemma Rook and Chrissy O’Donovan, as Gwendolen and Cecily, were roundly fabulous. Rook, in a show-stealing performance, embodied everything coquettish and wry, proper and bitchy in her role with excellent presence and poise, and bounced well off O’Donovan’s deliciously impetuous and caustic showing as Worthing’s ward.

For all these enthusiastic performances, however, the play was beset by minor errors in cueing, delivery, diction and some corpsing which took a slight edge off the show. The modernising also did not, to my mind, entirely work when juxtaposed with the text. Even some modernisation made within the text seemed clunky when executed and the whole ‘modern’ concept seemed rather shoe-horned in for its own sake, particularly in terms of music (‘Love Shack’, ‘Close to You’ and some others of similar general late 20th Century stock) and, often, costume. The upside was that this allowed greater expression of the usually demure sexuality in the play, but this was not, I feel, quite reason enough.

These concerns, however serious, should not, however, take away from a roundly entertaining production by some obviously talented individuals, under the principal direction of promising new talents Tim Newns and Holly Mowbray-Brown. Given that many of these talents will be further honed as part of the university drama department’s final year productions in November and January, I look forward to seeing the Jolly Roger fly again, in more sympathetic premises.

Reviewed by: Paddy Cooper

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