The Importance of Being Earnest

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Napier Repertory Players
7 November 2018, Napier Little Theatre
By Anna Soutar

This is, as Mr Oscar Wilde reminds us, “a Trivial Comedy for Serious People”. First performed in Victorian London it is still trivial, it is still a comedy and woe betide us if we take anything about it at all seriously.

This small company of players tucked away in a back street in Napier have taken this silly situation of a twice double deception and presented it just as it was written, posed postures, genteel tea trays, cucumber sandwiches and all, and let its wit and language lap over the audience.

Played in a gentle gentlemanly way – ladylike in the case of Lady Bracknell – or not, as we slowly realise. (More about her in a moment).  Happy to see the funny side we find ourselves bursting out with guffaws as audiences have since 1895.

On the surface this is a comedy of manners, which itself is a contradiction since manners must be the most unreal behaviour set that could possibly be. Underlying this is a story with a moral about two young men who are overly wealthy, overly pampered and seriously under-occupied, each devising an escape route out of their constricting circumstances, making use of the social convention of another life in some other location.  They need different names in each circumstance: “Earnest in town, Jack in the country”. This inevitably leads to a disastrous muddle.

It is indeed the same real-life truth Oscar Wilde himself faced, and if the piece is about anything it is about the question of identity and self-belief. In Wilde’s real-life case the outcome was inhumane and ultimately tragic. His play offers another funnier unravelling and we owe it to the playwright and generations of language lovers to take the comedic way this time.

Throughout, the characters keep reminding each other about the correct way to behave, from the opening scene when Algie scoffs all the cucumber sandwiches and then blames it on the butler who blames it on the … and so on, to the final denouement when Lady Bracknell tells Miss Prism, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

As an audience aside, I give my admiration to the actor playing Algie, who eats the sandwiches, bread and butter, tea cakes, muffins (and very nice they were, too, delivered to our table in an interval) throughout the performance. Good job, Robert Mackintosh!

The players pose like set-piece tableaus, my favourite couple being Doctor Chasuble and Miss Prism (Matthew Kidd and Adrienne Hurley), who group themselves together like a cruet set on Nanny’s tea table.

The irresistible force – whose presence on the stage is impossible to avoid; the last word in behaviour and attitudes, the revealing of the predicament of Mr Worthing’s hand bag “A handbag?!” –  is Robert Hickey’s Lady Bracknell and a sterling job he does of it too.

The ways each of the protagonists carried out their duties is fit to the time: Glenn Cook as Jack conveying a boundless variety of facial quirks and grimaces, Algernon louche beyond louche, Gwendolyn all pout and snooty head-tossing, Cecily the country mouse dainty and wide eyed. My grandson who accompanied me (I believe a rounded education containing excellent English is a singular requisite for a young man) was smitten by these two, Laura Jeffares and Rose Allison.

We were given an extra gift when Laura Jeffares sang in front of the curtain one of the popular songs of the period.

If I have any criticism of the performance I would say that apart from Algernon and his aunt Lady Bracknell, they delivered their lines at such a gallop it was not always easy to enjoy the play before the words had run away into the next. Perhaps this is because I come from a time when play on words meant just that, a play on words, teasing out each syllable for its own special enjoyment. Robert Hickey did this with “per-ram-bu-lator!”

The scenery and sets gave the tea sets pride of place and the suit of armour was a nice touch; one wonders what Mr Wilde would’ve said? The costumes were totally de rigeur and appropriate to the time, although the wearing of corsets for both genders would have lifted – ahem – that department into another level. Take a note John Graham and Zach James, servants to each household.

We are taken out of our time and place and deposited in another, the one marked ‘out-of-date, file for future reference’, and we are so glad Mr Wilde is still around in the wings for brave thespians like the Napier Rep, to find and play it out for us.

As the gentleman himself once said, “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.”

 The Importance of Earnest is on at Little Theatre until 17 November

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