Theatre Review: The Importance of Being Earnest

The lilt of Oscar Wilde’s elegant language, meticulously chosen to delight, provoke and entertain, helps to confect a figgy pudding of fun crammed with bons mots, epigrams and wicked satire.

Presented by St Jude’s Players
Reviewed 177h November, 2017

This jolly night in the theatre was just like having a chat with Ewart Shaw (author, broadcaster and opera reviewer for The Advertiser).   The lilt of Oscar Wilde’s elegant language, meticulously chosen to delight, provoke and entertain, helps to confect a figgy pudding of fun crammed with bons mots, epigrams and wicked satire. Wilde’s comedy still holds up 122 years after it was first performed. Director Rosie Aust’s current production for St Jude’s Players has the audiences chuckling, guffawing and applauding at this elegant comedy of manners, built upon exquisitely calibrated language designed to lampoon the hypocrisies and paradoxes of society.

In an appropriately pale puce set decorated with Beardsley-style post-regency stripes, eight actors create a series of social disasters designed to make us laugh, wince and think, in that order. Don Oakley’s neat production design wisely minimised the flaws of St Jude’s hall and capitalised on its merits. Costumes, under Chrissy Slater’s coordination, were mostly excellent. Fran Hardie is credited separately for the Bracknell wardrobe, which is exceptionally good.

Andrew Clark plays society matriarch Lady Bracknell. He looked imposing in his beautiful frocks, although there’s a touch of the Auntie Jack about him.  His cheekbones were razor-sharp, his timing was excellent, and his articulation was mercifully clear. Although Clark’s voice is good, I would have liked a more fruity, melodramatic vocal quality to his Bracknell. The text licences an actor (of any gender) to go right over the top and down the other side. Clark’s Bracknell, although charming, resided too close to reality.

Algernon Moncrieff is a vacuous upper-class twit.  It’s a gift of a comedy role, and Robert Bell worked meticulously throughout the show to maintain Algernon’s character, giving him physical sharpness and a light, crisp energy. Bell never lets the pace flag. On occasions, the speed of his delivery eroded his vocal clarity. In every show (save ballet and mime) words matter – in Wilde, each word is imperative. I predict that the hard-working Bell will tidy this up during the run. Matthew Chapman is cast as Jack Worthing. He consistently tries to equal Bell’s energy, pace and characterisation. I’m happy to ascribe any lack in Chapman’s performance to the shockingly ill-fitting waistcoat he has been given for Act one. It’s a wonder the poor man retained the will to live.

The two juvenile-lead ladies are Vanessa Redmond, playing Gwendolen Bracknell and Brittany Daw, who plays Cecily Cardew. Redmond’s Gwendolen added comedic energy with a thin veneer of round-eyed innocence barely masking a rapacious carnality. She’s hot for Jack, despite his iffy provenance. Daw gave us a Cecily with downcast gaze, willowy grace and all the expected tropes of late 19th century maidenhood.

The accents of the cast provided a veritable Cook’s Tour of the United Kingdom. Top prize for consistency, clarity, and vocal quality goes to David Lockwood, whose Reverend Chasuble was a delight. Not only was he vocally secure, his acting was consistent, sensitive, and well-judged. Lockwood’s work was invaluable in building and sustaining the comedy. Lesley Reed (Miss Prism) and Andy Winwood, playing two different manservants, round out the cast.

Lighting was problematic, especially in the second act, where the lighting state was intended to indicate a garden in daylight, but succeeded in flattening and “washing-out” the actors’ facial features.  Perhaps it was a problem of angle, because the second act was ingeniously set in front of the curtains.

Oscar Wilde still has much to say to us today, and the direction of Rosie Aust (assisted by Don Oakley) ensured that Wilde’s humour, his humanity, and his sharp eye for hypocrisy and humbug are preserved, without turning the show into a museum piece. Yes, the ladies wear huge leg-o’-mutton sleeves, and the gents sport handsome foulards, but the sheer inanity of a society built on lies is as modern as House of Cards. Aust allows all the absurd situations to tell the story and entertain us.

I’ve heard it said that St Jude is the patron saint of lost causes (as well as the Chicago Police Department – go figure). If that’s so, Saint Jude can take the next two weeks off – this show is no lost cause at all. It is simply “A trivial comedy for serious people”, as Wilde himself subtitled it. Laugh as much as you like, you’ll soon recognise a contemporary Australian character or two within the story. And wince.

Reviewed by Pat. H. Wilson

Venue:  St Jude’s Hall, Brighton
Season: 16th – 25th November, 2017
Duration: 2 hours
Tickets:  Adults: $20 Concession: $16 Child $7
Bookings: On-line: Click on BUY TICKETS or Telephone bookings: 0436 262 628 or 82962628


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