The Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest was my third chance to have a look at Oscar Wilde’s best known play. The previous two were an amateur production which is best forgotten and a National Theatre production back in 1982 directed by Peter Hall with Judi Dench, Zoe Wanamaker, Anna Massey, Nigel Havers, Martin Jarvis, Elizabeth Garvie, Brian Kent, John Gill and Paul Rogers which was probably just about as good as this play is ever going to get. So good that, if I’m honest, I wasn’t that worried about seeing it again. Two things brought me along to spend News Year’s Eve in its company. Firstly the fact that I was lucky enough to win a pair of tickets by posting a photograph of my handbag on the SJT’s facebook page and secondly the fact that one of my favourite actresses, Becky Hindley, was cast as Lady Bracknell.
Any production of The Importance of Being Earnest is so full of well known epigrams that have to be negotiated and made fresh that it is not an easy play to get right. The quartet of characters at its heart are four vibrant, silly but good hearted young people who are doing what privileged young people have always done, skating through life happily, without taking themselves too seriously, falling in love and enjoying themselves in spite of the efforts of the older generation to rein them in. They are not simply standing around in impressive costumes spouting bon mots. This lightness and youth and its conflict with the older generation (none of whom are quite so staid and upright as they appear at first) is at the heart of the play. It is a souffle, clever and inconsequential, which makes its points about society and human nature by stealth, under the cover of laughter. There is never any doubt that everything is going to work out right in the end, but along the way Wilde enjoys poking fun at the pomposity and ridiculous nature of the society he sees around him. It needs speed and a lightness of touch and a skilled cast who can deliver the carefully pointed and complex dialogue both accurately and naturally- not an easy job. Wilde has set it down exactly as it should be and there is no room for manoeuvre. Get the line right and it works perfectly. Mistime it and it doesn’t. Much, much harder to perform than it looks.
It was all great fun, just as it should be, and the heart of the production was in the right place. The four young people were suitably young, likable and eager and there was plenty of charm on show. The relationship between Algy and Jack is a nice portrait of male friendship between two contrasting characters and Charlie Holloway and Simon Bubb made the most of this. The two young ladies who catch their eye, Cecily and Gwendoline were also very well played by Beth Park and Naomi Cranston and they also worked together well, female jealousy being transformed into female solidarity as they realised what has been going on. The older couple, Canon Chausible and Miss Prism, were very nicely done too, by Paul Ryan and Maria Gough. Maria Gough looked perfect and her facial expressions were a joy. It’s a good part and it’s a pleasure to see a character role played as well as that. The standout role, as far as the general public are concerned is the formidable Aunt Augusta, Lady Bracknell, who the young people have to overcome in order to find happiness, and thankfully we had Becky Hindley to bring her to life. Becky Hindley has considerable presence on stage, looked great, and this meant that she was able to make her effects without overplaying the role, something which is to be avoided when you have lines to say ( you know the one I mean) which are still remembered in folklore by people who have never even seen Edith Evans in the role. For the record we had a long pause beforehand and an understated delivery of the line which suited me just fine. It was a well judged and natural performance. Not a dragon, thankfully.
I have already mentioned the costumes twice and they were lovely- Jan Dee Brown’s work- as was the direction by Chris Monks, although I could have done without the interlude during the second interval while the set was changed. That didn’t quite work for me.
I came away after having a very good time, feeling much more pleased to have seen the play again than I thought I would be. One of the best free rides I have ever been granted.