(4 / 5)
This play is an old favourite that you may well have seen before, either on stage or on screen. So that raises certain expectations – if it’s going to be a classic production then it needs to do a lot more than just tick the boxes. Richard Fitch’s production at Theatr Clwyd certainly does just that. Yes it has the lavish period sets, and yes it has the authentically recreated Victorian costumes, but it also has a whole lot more to offer.
From the moment that Algy (James Backway) bounds onto the stage the audience is bowled along by the infectious energy of this company of 8 talented actors. No opportunity for comedy is lost as Algy and his more conventional friend Jack (Matt Jessup) engage in a verbal sparring match that only escalates when the imperious Lady Bracknell arrives with wonderfully quivering feathers in her array of impressive hats (Hilary Maclean), accompanied by her deceptively dutiful daughter Gwendolen (Emma Denly). Many of the lines are so familiar that we are almost waiting for them to be delivered, but that doesn’t make them any less funny.
And then suddenly the scenery is swept away before our eyes, and we are transported from a stuffy London townhouse to a flower-filled country garden under a blue summer’s sky. The use of a soaring Strauss waltz to accompany this scene change is inspired, and the fast pace continues as we are introduced to winsome young Cecily (Robyn Cara), her eccentric governess Miss Prism (Melanie Walters) and the pompous Reverend Chasuble (Darren Lawrence). The plot thickens with the unexpected arrivals of Algy, Jack and Gwendolen in quick succession. However the highlight of Act 2 is the vitriolic exchange of pleasantries between Cecily and Gwendolen as they mistakenly believe themselves to be engaged to the same man. A special mention should also go to Nick Harris playing contrasting butlers Lane and Merryman for creating some truly hilarious comic moments.
Before we know it the two sets of young lovers are indoors again as the last Act unfolds. Soon the mystery of Jack’s foundling origins is explained when Lady Bracknell pitches up and Miss Prism’s guilty secret is finally revealed. A happy ending is on the cards for almost everyone, with not just two but three happy couples on stage, as well as Algy and Jack turning out to be long lost brothers.
This production is a joy, richly deserving a 4 star rating, and definitely a feather in the cap of upcoming director Richard Fitch and Theatr Clwyd.
(4 / 5)
Rife with the daring wit and perceptive observation of society, gender dynamics, and identity, that is now considered to be quintessential of Wilde’s work. A humorous, yet equally astute, and sharp revival of a play that is arguably considered overly-produced, with energising dynamism.
Firstly, there is no ambiguity regarding the place of the actors and the audience – the fourth wall is suitably maintained – yet the almost Shakespearean quality of acting and mirthful spirit of the performers seems to allow for complete immersion within every aphorism that flies from their mouths; making the experience of witnessing this production not merely an observation of a collective group of actors, but an escape into the scintillating perspective and daringly droll world of Wilde.
Physically, most of the actors embody their respective characters with seemingly easily-attainable excellence. Backway and Jessup are impressively skilful in each gesture and movement, embodying precisely the fierce quick-witted physicality and attitudes of both Algernon and John respectively. Their mutual magnetism is established from the very start, and remains equally as alluring in the final scene.
Emma Denly plays Gwendolen with tremendous charm, and is consistently, and humorously, impassioned – making it very much impossible not to feel deeply enamoured of her immaculate characterisation. However, Robyn Cara’s portrayal of Cecily pales in comparison and, though certainly of an adequate standard, does not seem to fulfil the vibrant potential of the character.
Maclean’s interpretation of the ominous matriarch, Lady Bracknell, is formidably sinister – presented with such careful control and flawless superciliousness. Each syllable is pronounced with sharp diction; each movement is consumed by an almost satirical conceit. Though, nevertheless, her subtly, and occasional shines of humour are profoundly effective.
Atmospherically, the set, sound, and lighting are ingeniously suited to the performance, enhancing the environment with an aristocratic elegance and beauty, with subdued and comforting tones that allow not only for the actor to remain the primary focus of the performance, but to have their performances enhanced by the compelling replication of the grandeur of aristocratic Victorian England.
Ultimately, Richard Fitch’s production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ frankly fulfils, if not supersedes, his already established acclaim through his directorial involvement in ‘Funny Girl’, ‘Urinetown’ and ‘Buried Child’, with an almost immaculate cast, and indisputable vigour from the moment the curtain rises, to the second it falls.
(4 / 5)
I must confess my knowledge of “The Importance of Being Ernest” is limited to a handful of overused quotes about ladies’ diaries and a handbag. So on one hand I had the anticipation of the unexpected but on the other the uncertainty of the unknown.
From the second I took my seat I was no longer in The Antony Hopkins Theatre but transported back to Victorian times, the back drop giving the illusion of a period house, the set pieces minimal yet effective. Not a piece of furniture or prop wasted from the red leather sofa to the finely sliced cucumber sandwiches. As an additional trick to just drop you from your 21st century woes into the height of 19th century society no house lights dimmed and the entry of Nick Harris as the excellent if not scene stealing Merriman the Butler (and in later scenes Lane) was an unexpected start to the play. This instantly added to the feeling that I was just sat on the opposite sofa in the world of the play. This concept ran throughout, the cast all gave the impression they were at one point or another addressing the audience directly and letting us into their bizarre three act melodrama for the day.
The story as a whole was, on the surface a mild farce with a poor plot centred around identity, a name and relationships…. on the surface. The real brilliance of the play lies within it’s ironic undertones and satirical speeches poking fun at society, marriage, relationships the upper class – and much more. The actors were craftsmen in as such as they delivered outstanding performances of beautifully timed comedy, especially Matt Jessop as John, and James Backway as Algernon yet they never failed to let the undertones of what needed to be delivered get across. The relationship between the two actors on stage was a delight and one of the main reasons I found the play enjoyable. Their movements on stage were perfect, timed to dance like perfection. The end of Act II in the garden saw James Backway land a shot at Matt Jessop with a muffin that I doubt he can replicate again!!! But it wasn’t just the men who stole the show, not to be out done the ladies held their own and the bitchy banter between Gwen Fairfax (Emma Denly) and Cecily (Robyn Cara) was a master-class in delivery.
Of course the real star of the show is the writer Oscar Wilde this is without doubt his most famous play and understandably so. He writes of a world he was obviously part of and a world he was very sceptical of – we see in polite society, as it was called, that the higher up the social chain you were, the less polite one needed to be. Overall Victorian morals and views were different to todays, as a society we do not play by some of the rules in place some 100 years ago – however the majority of the play could be as relevant now as it was then and with a few tweaks this play would be a voice for today’s women, today’s illegitimate children, a voice against high society, it was in this area where I was at odds with the direction of the play as a whole. Although I found the set stunning, the garden with its 20ft plus high hedges even smelling of roses, personally I would have liked to see a modern take on the play. Yes, it’s important to keep tradition alive, yes the actors and the set and the director all did a fantastic job but Oscar Wilde was such a revolutionary writer, he was writing about topics in a way that were so ironic and so iconic that 100 years later we are still talking and quoting him and laughing at his plays…. Would he really want them played out in the same staid way? I can’t see that he would – I think he would be wanting directors to be using his words to incite the same outrage he did.
Despite my enjoyment of the production it was disappointing to watch the play in a half full theatre, in the main it was a sea of older audience members and I had to ask …. Is that because this is a traditional performance of what is viewed as an old play for an older audience who love Oscar Wilde? I hope not. This production has received excellent responses and I know the theatre is undergoing physical changes at the minute. I am excited to see the direction this takes but if it continues to stick to the same programme I feel it will continue to have the same type of audience I was part of on Saturday afternoon. I am not going grey (yet), not necessarily an Oscar Wilde fan but I found this production a total blast from start to finish. It felt slightly on the longer side as it had 3 acts as opposed to the usual 2, however when you consider the extravagant set and the time it would take to get in and out of a bustle I am not surprised but it was worth the wait.
Overall I would definitely recommend this for all audiences no matter what colour your hair! 4 stars out of 5
Review by Karis Alaina Clarke
(4.5 / 5)
There are certain smells that have the power to transport you to a certain place. Before the action had even started on the stage of the Anthony Hopkins theatre, I found myself standing in the middle of a bookshop, browsing the shelves and in my element. Clearly, the ingredients for the opening scene – consisting of an oak desk, antique tea trolley, red leather sofa and chipped wood wall panelling – had combined to create a most evocative scent. It was the perfect metaphor for my relationship with The Importance of Being Earnest. Suddenly, this play, which I had only previously encountered on paper, was coming to life right before my eyes, and in glorious detail too.
The costume department at Theatr Clwyd has once again excelled in creating the most exquisite outfits. The actors look positively fabulous, and the periodic detail is simply sublime. They capture the regal nature of the Victorian aristocracy perfectly: elegant, smart and, particularly in the case of Lady Bracknell, excessive. The Scenic Artists have clearly been inspired to compliment these gorgeous outfits with some spectacular scenery. In Act II especially, the Manor House garden is breathtaking. With huge green hedges and colourful flower beds, it is a wonder the stage is big enough to fit it all in. It is a real work of art, worthy of a horticultural (never mind theatrical) award.
Thankfully, this colourful production also contains some vibrant acting. It is not just the brilliance of Oscar Wilde’s script that is hugely affecting. The addition of physical expression means that the wit and wisdom contained within it are greatly enhanced. The humour is at times bitingly satirical, at times far more slapstick. Yet whether it is the mannerisms of Matt Jessup as John Worthing, the animated physicality of Nick Harris (Merriman), or the snobbish ignorance with which Hilary Maclean plays Lady Bracknell, this production certainly delivers on comedic value. It is infectiously enjoyable, in part from the fact that the entire cast seem to be taking such pleasure in performing Wilde’s work. They never seem to be overindulging in this opportunity though. They embody their characters brilliantly, and the strength of relationship between them is evident.
This seems a timeless play. One hundred years on, it still feels fresh. I still meet people today who care deeply about their public appearance, their social status and financial expression. It also feels like a timely political play too. One wonders, at least from media portrayals, whether today’s politicians aren’t the spitting image of Wilde’s characters. In both cases, director Richard Fitch has hit on something which makes this production enjoyably and humorously infectious. It is a beautiful production. A treat for the eyes, ears and (for me at least) the nose.