When anyone thinks of Oscar Wilde's classic comedy of manners, they automatically think of the immortal line - "A Handbag" delivered by Lady Bracknell during a pivotal scene. Thankfully, this production is so much more than a retread of familiar lines for Wilde devotees.
This Royal Exchange production follows the original text closely without trying to modernise it or add any flashy gimmicks to seduce a young audience. John Worthing (Ian Shaw) adopts a new name and therefore a new persona in order to woo Gwendolyn Fairfax (Anna Hewson), a lady of some importance. She is the daughter of 'the' Lady Bracknell (Gabrielle Drake).
Meanwhile, Algernon Moncrieff (Jamie De Courcey) poses as John's fictional brother, Earnest, which wins over the quirky but modern Cecily Cardew (Laura Rees). Add to this scenario shy Miss Prism (Joanna David) and her repressed feelings for Reverend Chausuble (John Watts) and you are left with a delightful play which raises many a smile during its three fast paced acts.
Wilde's wonderful writing has the audience on the edge of their seats waiting for each gem of a line to be uttered. Thankfully the excellent cast do not merely deliver lazily as they could so easily have done. Each actor brings something original to the stage by refusing to overact during the farcical scenes.
Drake does seem too young to really excel as the infamous Lady Bracknell. But she does relish the part playing it prim and proper with the right amount of snobbery. Shaw brings a sense of bewilderment to the role which suits his displaced character. Rees' Cecily is worldly but naive when it comes to the opposite sex. Hewson is marvellous, very much like a mini Lady Bracknell in waiting while David excels as Miss Prism - the shy but secretive governess who holds the key to many of the play's revelations.
Braham Murray directs at a breakneck pace which equals non-stop laughter for the audience and compliments Wilde's style of writing. Jason Taylor's clever lighting adds depth to Johanna Bryant's understated set design.
This is an excellent production which delighted the audience on the night I attended and not just because they were wild about the original play. So many classic texts are staged pedestrian retreads or full of 'new' hidden meanings. This version of Earnest is simply sublime because it respects the audience too much to tweak the material or simply push all the right buttons.
- Glenn Meads