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THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST Avenue Theatre, Ipswich

A HANDBAG FROM THE PAST..

 

 

This is a joyful thing, and it needn’t have been. There is always peril in a play you know too well from schooldays and through a score of performances – some great, some quirky, some straight, several very starry. You flinch a little at seeing it again. But I admire Joanna Carrick of Red Rose Chain, who never fails to find some edge or quirk you hadn’t thought of, whether writing a history-play about Ipswich in the age of Elizabeth I or adapting Beatrix Potter.

 

So I sidled along, and found Oscar Wilde’s play afresh. I really did. I had, for instance, never noticed that edge of panic in Canon Chasuble and Miss Prism when, after their stroll together, they suddenly find Cecily missing and rather than suspecting girlish mischief, think she may have followed them down the lane. What fearful impropriety were they up to? Nor had I considered sufficiently the passing horror of Jack/Ernest when in the final scene it seems momentarily likely that he might be his beloved Gwendolen’s brother, rather than cousin.

Partly it is the intimacy of this little space, played in the round, which helps; but also the note-perfect, sharp work of the young cast – especially the men, Lawrence Russell and Laurence Pears, amusingly a foot different in height and utterly distinct in character. Pears is languidly head-boyish and Russell an anxious little tyke, clearly not quite over his Victoria Station beginnings and disliking telling the tale. Pears doubles as Prism in a big skirt, Russell as a gorgeously pompous Chasuble in a vast furry clerical hat. Leonie Spilsbury is a self-assured sophisticate Gwendolen, Joanna Sawyer a giggly Cecily: again the girls are defined as sharply against each other as they could be.
Joanna Carrick herself plays Lady Bracknell, as well as directing: as ever wholly free from grandstanding, she gives us a pragmatic old bat who subtly evidences what Wilde carefully wrote in – the fact that she married into money from a lower social caste, and has to keep her end up at all times. As for “A handbag??!!”, a delicious little pause has her turning to the audience (no fourth wall in this show) with a muttered “WHAT did he say?”. The handbag itself is a splendid, very old battered leather Gladstone, a triumph for the props department.

 

But above all it works because Carrick has set it as a memory play ; we are three generations on, as Gwendolen’s great-great granddaughter clears the attic for sale in the late 1960’s, with old vinyl records and photos dangling from the ceiling as we arrive. The son’s girlfriend Robin arrives with a feminist banner, only to become Cecily, and remind us of how huge was that half-century’s changes. Best of all, the memory which conjures up the gay old story is that of the retiring butler, Merriman, who as we first meet the 1960’s family in their attic is being taken off, wandering a little in his wits, to a Home by his affectionate employers.

 

 

For he was, decades earlier, a 19 year old servant in the household of Cecily Cardew and remembers the momentous day, occasionally informing us of the fact and taking a bit of credit. In the part Antony Garrick, a proper veteran of the 1950’s Gielgud company and later a Rada instructor and AD of the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, is actually the director’s father. So I now see why this tiny, community-minded theatre in an often unregarded Suffolk town is so very well led, with heart and skill and gaiety.

 

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THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST Vaudeville, WC2

A HANDBAG?  A WHOLE TRUNKFUL OF TREATS
The heart sinks beforehand: Oscar Wilde’s sunny comedy melodrama is too familiar: skipping from one well-worn epigram to the next, from handbag to muffin, butler to Bracknell until a theatregoing audience can be tempted to join in. Directors have tried every resuscitation technique – play-within-a-play, high-speed cutting, star casting, unexpected crooked sets – with no guarantee that it’ll work. But this time, Adrian Noble and his cast pull it off, and the old dear comes up fresh as a daisy, in sets of such traditionally gorgeous Edwardiana that they get their own round of applause, and without any gimmicks at all. Unless you count casting David Suchet as Lady Bracknell: and that is not a gimmick, but a welcome extension of the great man’s ability to rule a stage with one twitch of his black, black brows.
And Suchet – we’ll come to him in a moment – is not carrying the burden alone. The whole production is marked by a nimble comic delicacy, smart body language and thoughtful line-by-line work on emphasis which often brings up the old jokes scrubbed clean, jerking us into surprised laughter. Algernon and Jack – Philip Cumbus and Michael Benz – handle the banter of the opening scene without either stylized “I’m doing Wilde” crispness or undue modernization, just as naturally as a brace of Top Gear mates whose natural communication is only in jokes. Imogen Doel’s Cecily is priceless, cooing and scampering with a steely girlish feyness and spot-on physical timing, Emily Barber’s Gwendolen stiffly fashionable in contrast: every inch her mother’s daughter, so that one trembles for poor Jack’s marital future.
And at the heart of that central garden scene is the best comedy courtship of the year (possibly the decade) as Michele Dotrice’s unmatchable Miss Prism yearns and writhes and skips like a lovesick hippo towards the equally fearful Canon Chasuble, an unrecognizably rebarbative Richard O’Callaghan, who from limp grey mullet to skinny gaiters is everything that the satirical Wilde could have desired him to be.
And David Suchet’s Lady Bracknell? Heroically upholstered, threateningly wigged and hatted in the sweltering first night heat, he deploys a masterclass in how to revive too-familiar lines. Everyone was waiting for “A handbag!” so he denied it to us, throwing it away, loosing the explosive moment instead on the earlier word “Found???”. Other moments of cherishable Suchet-stress lie scrawled on my pad as -“What?’ “Parcel!” “Prism!”. The calculating gimlet eyes and overdone hauteur – suddenly melted by mention of money – place the character, without any pretentious actorly deepening, precisely where the laughing clear-eyed Irishman wanted it. This is what he saw around him: a socially defensive society parvenue in a carapace of confidence. When she speaks of “social outrage” and the French Revolution, her gloved hand flutters momentarily to her neck. Perfect.
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rating four     4 Meece Rating

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