Chris Cannell reviews The Importance of Being Earnest, which went up 15th and 16th of November in the Barron Theatre as part of the 2013 Freshers’ Plays.
In viewing a Freshers’ play one must be aware of two things. Firstly, that it is a play performed exclusively by Freshers, and therefore certain transgressions are to be forgiven, if not expected and encouraged; secondly, however, they are still plays and must remain true to the heart of the endeavor—to have fun and to entertain. Unfortunately, in the case of this very earnest performance, some of the entertainment value was lost to the quirks of the production.
The directing, while solid in places, lacked the light touch essential to Wilde plays. The blocking was arbitrary and stilted at times, with characters grouped around a central point or crossing randomly. Thematic elements were lost in a focus on the mere words of the piece. The shortened adaptation of the script cut mention of Jack (Ernest) and Algernon’s debauched times in London, losing the thematic juxtaposition between the city and the country. As such, the contrast between both lead characters lacked burn and drive; the characters remained unchanged.
Cutting a full-length play into a shortened piece could have been used to highlight certain themes or characters; however, the cutting of certain scenes—such as the garden tea party between Cecily and Gwendolen—was a shame, and gutted central characters. As this cut shifted the production’s focus onto the two male leads, they needed to be able to carry the weight of the show. This was well handled by Andrew Chalmers, playing Jack, who started off at a slow burn—part Kate Kennedy-pastiche, part Basil Hallward, part Prince Charles—but whose stage-presence underwent a marked improvement through the show. The opposite could be said of Alex Freeman (as Algernon), who was at first the stronger of the two, but failed to follow through on his initial promise. Kate Mariott (as Lady Bracknell) made a strange decision on accent that hampered both the comedy and character of her performance; her physicality was, however, quite refined. Erika Naegeli, perpetuating a habit common to the cast of staring into the audience to deliver audible and obvious Wildean asides, lent a radiance and indelible sense of fun to proceedings. The deft casting of all parts was the hallmark of the directors Joanna Boon and Maria Paris.
A special mention must go to Adrien Harrison, who, despite a few line slip-ups, delivered an understated and excellent comic performance as both butlers. A true flash of brilliance came from Elizabeth Galbraith as Gwendolen: her sin was tangible, her performance completely assured.
On the whole this was a play with promise, and it was a joy to see a classic tackled (if with some misplaced gusto) by Freshers. I certainly hope to see more of the cast and crew in the theatre of our wee grey town soon.
Photo credits: Ben Anderson