Surrounded by children’s plays, pantomimes and Christmas musicals, the Stephen Joseph Theatre bucks the trend to good effect with Chris Monks’ stylish and entertaining production of Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy. Though the placing of the interval between London (Act 1) and the country (Acts 2 and 3) makes for a long second-half, neither pace nor audience enjoyment flags.
The Importance of Being Earnest is a glittering procession of epigrams, logic subversions of logic, satirical observations on society and absurd nonsense. It is also a beautifully plotted verbal farce. Two young gentlemen, John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, of similar background and tastes, one of them with glimmerings of responsibility that elude the other, are in eager pursuit of two young ladies, the charming rural ingénue Cecily Cardew (who calls a spade a spade) and the sophisticated Gwendolen Fairfax (who has never seen a spade). The complications include the presence of Lady Bracknell (mother to Gwendolen, aunt to Algernon and dragon to most of polite society) and the most famous handbag in English theatre, but above all the fact that the name Ernest is an integral part of both courtships – which is difficult if your name is Jack or Algy!
Not only plot and characters, but individual witticisms are so familiar that maintaining freshness is not easy. At Scarborough the in-the-round staging makes for more informality, though no sloppiness of delivery, and Chris Monks prioritised casting actors of suitable youthfulness in the roles of the four lovers. The result is occasional outbursts of physical comedy (well judged and never too long) and a pervading sense of mischief.
Jack and Algy can appear cut from the same cloth, but Simon Bubb and Charlie Hollway, both splendidly expressive, are as vividly contrasted as the best double acts. Naomi Cranston’s Gwendolen wears her chin at the recommended angle and is more genuine, more impulsive than some I have seen, while Beth Park makes a case for Cecily being the best part in the play, knowing innocence always being a winner. Becky Hindley as Lady Bracknell has to cope with the memory of Edith Evans. The “handbag” moment (pause and puzzlement, the big guns saved for the succeeding lines) works pretty well, but Hindley’s wish to avoid Evans’ stately progress throws away some lines. However, this is a Lady Bracknell well suited to the production. The same can be said for Maria Gough (excellent as Miss Prism, with the right severity to go with the girlish fluttering), Paul Ryan (playing down the grotesque in Canon Chasuble) and Howard Gossington (a cleverly contrasted pair of servants). Jan Bee Brown’s designs go for economical elegance in the sets and glorious extravagance in the costumes.
The Importance of Being Earnest runs at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough until 5 January 2013. For further information visit www.sjt.uk.com