Quite a lot happens before the play starts. The musicians, then the actors, traipse through the auditorium to the stage. The cast form a line and look at us through binoculars and lorgnettes. Are we such a spectacle? Algy plays a bit of a Beethoven sonata (badly) at a white grand piano. The kitchen staff is visibly preparing cucumber sandwiches.
It’s as though director Irina Brown is shying away from the nitty-gritty of Oscar Wilde, pretending it’s something it isn’t, or perhaps softening us up for a “different” kind of approach. But despite some horrid sounds in the microphoning of actors’ voices, the comedy survives, gaining strength in the last two acts from the exceptional performances of Jo Herbert as Gwendolen and Lucy Briggs Owen as Cecily.
The first is willowy and febrile, with early traces of the gorgon element in her mother Lady Bracknell – played with unapologetic hauteur and weirdly strangulated vowels by Susan Wooldridge – the second vivaciously playful and unusually subversive. They are well matched by Dominic Tighe’s eagerly pukka Algy and Ryan Kiggell’s ponderously explanatory Jack.
But it takes time for the evening to gel, partly because of the director’s battle with the outdoors. The setting is all white, with a re-tread of last year’s Gigi semi-circular ramp; designer Kevin Knight places Algy’s London flat against a wall of cubed mirrors like that horrid reflective insurance building opposite Warren Street tube, and the garden at Woolton is dotted with roses on knee-high stalks which wobble when bumped into.
Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble are strongly cast with Julie Legrand and Richard O'Callaghan light years away from the Margaret Rutherford and Miles Malleson twittering in the famous film version, and it’s nice to see Christopher Beeny popping up as the insouciant valet Lane, though Jim Hooper’s country counterpart, Merriman, is inexplicably played as a rustic imbecile with von Stroheim tendencies.
Still, this is a valiant attempt to re-cast a great comedy in a new vein of summertime rapture, a spirit which certainly informs the playful deceptions and verbal jousting. The end of Act One is botched in the plotting of Algy’s raid on Hertfordshire, but the final revelations are ingeniously managed with the army lists perched not on shelves but on the white ramp; the morning room and the library have been delightfully coalesced on the garden terrace.