The Importance of Being Earnest | Review
Grand Opera House, Belfast • Tuesday 20 February ’18
By Conor O’Neill
Double identities, double marriage proposals, proposed double christenings, a mix up at Victoria railway station and a give-away cigarette case. Oscar Wilde’s double swipe at the double standards of 19th-century society and the institution that is matrimony make for a night of rollicking good theatre.
800-odd paying customers sit down in Belfast’s GOH for The Importance of Being Earnest and none leave without a smile on their face. Wilde, the man claimed for almost every perfect one-liner in existence, and when you doubt it’s his, you know you can rely on Mark Twain to make yourself look clever in the right company.
The right company is here in abundance this evening. The Grand Opera House, has, especially in recent times, broadened its net with high octane musicals being its specialty for quite a while now. Tonight, however, with the words of a genius to play with, a more, in some eyes, the refined crowd has descended on the old girl and apart from the intro music for each of the three acts, only the words and action of a brilliant cast can be heard. That and the laughter brought about by Wilde’s devilish plot.
The raffish, Algernon (Thomas Howes) loves nothing more than lounging about in fashionable Victorian London, drinking tea, eating cake and is surely an extension of Wilde’s well-crafted and publicised self-image. Though, we all know there was more to Wilde than that.
His pal of sorts, Jack Worthing (Peter Sandys-Clarke) plays a double life in London and often adapts the name of Ernest to dilute or make little of his indiscretions. Back in his family seat, The Manor in Hertfordshire, Jack is a ward of Cecily (Louise Coulthard), 18-years-old and quite the innocent in comparison to the rest of the cast.
In Algernon’s sumptuously flat, Jack/John/Ernest declares his love for Gwendolyn (Kerry Ellis), Algernon’s sister. Dubious of Ernest’s suitability Algernon, in his velvet suit and with his foppish ways smells a rat, a cigarette case has to come into his possession that casts doubt on who he really believes Ernest to actually be. Though, as with most in this fashionably furnished kitchen sink of a drama, Algernon himself also leads a dual life, forever leaving London to be at the bedside of his perpetually ill non-existent friend, Bunbury. Bunburyists feature galore and with so many twists of the truth abound, something or someone has got to give.
Lady Bracknell (Gwen Taylor) mother of Gwendolyn is a mountain of a woman, both in character and physique, accentuated by the prominent posterior that must have been the fashion back then but does little for little creature comforts like sitting down. With the Bracknells popping in for tea, Jack, sorry Ernest proposes and his offering is happily accepted by the none too sharp Gwendolyn, who states she could only be betrothed to a man called Ernest, “A name that inspires confidence.” Of course, this leads to a proper grilling by Bracknell senior and on finding Ernest’s is unable to trace his family roots puts a halt to all proceedings.
Algernon, to twist the knife a little more, appears at The Manor the following day pretending himself to be Ernest. Beyond being a meddler, Algernon surprises both himself and everyone involved by declaring his love for Cecily, who again, finds the name Ernest to be most appealing.
The Rev. Canon Chasuble (Geoff Aymer) has not one but two Christenings to carry out to make all four of the would-be lovers happy. But there is a hornets’ nest of secrets to be uncovered and with glee, the audience watches with bated breath to see how this tangled mess will reveal.
Though rarely seen and as with all characters, tongues loaded with Wilde’s wit, the servants, Lane and Merriman (both played by Simon Shackleton) and Miss Prism (Susan Penhaligon), along with the Manor’s extensive library are key to the final reveal. One that leaves both cast and spectators in awe… those familiar with the script will know the details, but to see it acted with such skill and encased in such a well-designed setting make for a thrilling night out. I scratch my head trying to figure out who is my favourite character and actor. It changes not only with every scene but at times with a single quip from the pen of Wilde.
Three curtain calls, yet no standing ovation. The audience, like the characters, seem to deem such an expression of emotion vulgar; a word not befitting perhaps Wilde’s most famous and satirically piercing pieces of work.
The Original Theatre Company under the guidance of director Alastair Whatley, have again delivered an immensely funny and thought-provoking show. Ticket sales are going well, though there are some to be had.
The Importance of Being Earnest runs until Saturday 24 February with a matinee on Thursday. For tickets visit www.goh.co.uk or phone the box office on 02890 241919.
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