What makes a classic? Might it sometimes be a euphemism, for one production too many of an over-familiar play? The Importance Of Being Earnest, at the Devonshire Park Theatre this week, is a classic well worthy of the label.
As the show opened on Tuesday, I briefly caught up with Alastair Whatley, artistic director of the Original Theatre Company, who said: “This has been a joy to work on. The play is one of those rare things – a genuine masterpiece – like being in contact with something and someone who is on a different plane from us mere mortals.”
To call Whatley’s direction light-touch would not do it justice. What he and his actors do achieve is a lightness of mood and delivery: not a line is laboured, not a moment of stage time wasted, and Wilde’s dialogue is allowed to sparkle.
How different it might have been without Gwen Taylor in the pivotal role. So often in Earnest productions, Lady Bracknell can be the wrong sort of stage presence, dominating and stentorian. But Gwen plays Lady B. with good humour and a twinkle, and the humour is infectious. The famous lines are there, of course, but pomposity and posturing are replaced by a far more sympathetic matriarch. It’s a really interesting interpretation and well worth seeing.
And there is a whole clutch of other good reasons to get to the Devonshire Park before Saturday – including the uniformly excellent acting. Peter Sandys-Clarke is a dashing, smart and likeable Jack, while Thomas Howes gives Algernon a flamboyant, engaging bounce that stops short of buffoonery.
And in a week that celebrates the centenary of women’s suffrage, the two young females leads are bold and delightfully spirited: Wilde was clearly a couple of decades ahead of his time. A pert and impertinent Louise Coulthard is outstanding as Cecily, and Hannah Louise Howell has enough knowing sophistication to be a match for any suitor.
A company full of distinction and professionalism includes Susan Penhaligon cannily drawing out all Miss Prism’s eccentricities, and a lovably lugubrious Canon Chasuble from Geoff Aymer. Even the supporting parts are expertly played by Judith Rae and Simon Shackleton.
Gabrielle Slade designs an authentic and well-proportioned set with nice attention to detail, and the production is splendidly dressed: Gwen Taylor in particular is stately as a galleon in full sail.
But without the dialogue, all this would be an empty shell. Wilde’s script does sometimes seem engineered for the aphorisms and clever repartee, but the lines still ring true enough. The observations of human foibles are priceless and timeless: when, at one point, Miss Prism tartly instructs a dreaming Cecily to close her diary, she might just as well be speaking for all of us weary modern parents who cannot prise our children off their iPhones...
One production too many? Absolutely not. This is no tired reworking. It is as alive, as entertaining and as fresh as Oscar intended. By Kevin Anderson.