Talking Movies

August 21, 2015

The Importance of Being Earnest

Smock Alley presents a spirited production of Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy in which the setting of Victorian drawing room and garden receives an unusual interpretation.

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Algernon Moncrieff (Kevin Shackleton) is a confirmed Bunburyist; evading his formidable aunt Lady Bracknell (Valerie O’Leary) by dint of imaginary friend Bunbury, an invalid who lives in the country and is at death’s door whenever she issues invitations. Algernon is determined to unveil his friend Ernest Worthing (James Murphy) as a secret Bunburyist after finding a card revealing him to be Ernest in town and Jack in the country. Ernest, whose name is actually Jack, insists he is merely maintaining a high moral tone for the benefit of his ward Cecily (Aislinn O’Byrne) by the invention of disreputable brother Ernest, whose outrages necessitate frequent trips to London. But when Jack’s new fiancé, Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen (Clodagh Mooney Duggan), announces she could only love a man named Ernest, and her acidic mother declares that Jack’s unknown ancestry is an insurmountable obstacle to marriage, Jack’s engagement seems doomed. And that’s before Algernon decides to helpfully complicate matters with his most ridiculous Bunburying…

Marcus Costello’s startlingly green set serves as garden and drawing room with shrubbery in the shape of a piano revealing itself as a functional piano. There is also the added surreal touch of dresses hanging with lights inside them as eccentric garden decoration. Olga Criado Monleon’s costumes foppishly cast Jack in beige and Algy in blue, but excessively render unfashionable Cecily in a dress that’s almost a repurposed table-cloth. Initially you fear that director Kate Canning is attempting a Jordan-style queering of the text, but that approach quickly dissipates; though Charlie Hughes playing Lane, Merriman, and Canon Chasuble, leads to a major quibble. Lane is rendered with a jiving walk that’s as disconcerting for the character as Jeeves being played as Riff Raff, and Merriman becomes Worzel Gummidge, for the purpose of physically differentiating from Hughes’ main role as the entertainingly nervous Canon. O’Byrne also overplays vocally the girlishness and exaggerated innocence of young Cecily to contrast Duggan’s sultry Gwendolen.

And yet such complaints stand as naught against the whole production, as any gripes are swept away by the accelerating comedic momentum of Wilde’s script, and a deluge of delirious nonsense from the double act of Jack and Algy. Canning contrives some wonderful business. Jack and Algy engage in a tug of war for the silver tray bearing the coveted last muffin as Jack grunts his pained dialogue, while Katie McCann follows up one of her deliciously fake social laughs as Miss Prism with a death-stare at Jack and Algy for their effrontery. Shackleton and Murphy faced the challenge of playing roles that Rory Nolan and Marty Rea take on in a few months in the Gate’s production, and they can proudly boast that they equalled that proven double act in moments such as Jack first meeting Algy at his country estate. Duggan meanwhile adds knowing sauciness to Gwendolen’s dialogue that unnerves Jack terrifically, and seems to rediscover Wilde’s subversiveness.

Plays that are as quotable and almost over-familiar as Wilde’s offer their own hazards, and it is to this company’s credit that they sparkle.

4/5

The Importance of Being Earnest continues its run in Smock Alley until August 22nd.

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