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Home arrow Archive: Earlier Fringes arrow Archive: Brighton 2012 arrow The Importance of Being Earnest
The Importance of Being Earnest
Published on Sunday, 20 May 2012

3 stars

Redroaster Coffee House (venue website)
11-13, 17-20 May, 8:00pm-9:00pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Family-friendly. Suitable for all ages.
 2-for-1 tickets for Friends of the Fringe members.

To my mind, when assessing any production of The Importance of Being Earnest, you have to start with the handbag.  Lady Bracknell’s outraged exclamation must be one of the best-known lines in theatre; it’s what the whole audience is waiting for, and nobody’s truly relaxed until it’s safely in the can.  In this adaptation, the handbag moment is done curtly and snappily – an imaginative but faithful interpretation, which didn’t feel quite as funny as it could or should have been.  And that, I think, is an equally fair way of summing up the remainder of the play.

Wilde’s humour, wordy and complex, is undoubtedly difficult to get across to the modern ear, and I don’t feel this production – hosted in the popular Redroaster coffee house – entirely succeeds.  Too many of the actors rely on simply speaking their lines, leaving it up to the audience to work out that they’re witty.  But Rosanna Wood, playing Gwendolen, shows how it should be done, using arch pauses and staccato flips of her fan to punctuate the dialogue and sell the jokes.  Alex Redmond, as the rector Chasuble, also exploits the gently comic potential of his character; I found myself regretting that he’d been cast in a relatively minor role, although I have to admit he matched it perfectly.

The leading men – Ben Foster as Algernon and Martin Joyce as Jack – grew on me as the hour progressed, building towards an entertainingly over-blown finale.  Foster, in particular, has a delightfully expressive face, and develops most into his role when confronted with an irate Cecily.  The odd slapstick moment towards the end worked well, and there’s a nice physicality about the occasional clambering over the coffee shop’s counter – a few more of those antics might have helped to lift the pace of the earlier scenes.

But my main criticism is this: why are we in a coffee shop?  Or alternatively, since we are in a coffee shop, why’s that unmistakeable reality not reflected in the play?  Earnest seems an ideal choice for this particular setting: with very little change to the dialogue, the whole thing could be moved to a tea house, or at least kept firmly within the drawing room.  Instead, by retaining the overt references to (among other places) a country garden, the adaptation asks us to imagine we’re somewhere we’re blatantly not – which reduces the unconventional space to a regular theatre, albeit one with a more distracting background and weirder sightlines. 

There were a few moments which showed how well it could have worked, including the toe-curlingly catty exchanges between Gwendolen and Cecily over the heads of fellow tea-drinkers.  Some physical humour with a tea-trolley also earned its place, and felt entirely fitting for a script which, after all, deliberately emphasises the trivial.  Next time then, I urge more boldness with the editor’s pen; respecting Wilde’s text doesn’t have to mean preserving its every detail.

For all that, though, there’s a lot of ambition in Witness Theatre’s work, and I do admire the quick-thinking immersion created by their in-character banter before and after the show.  I see the company’s bringing a follow-up work to Edinburgh this August – perhaps informed by some lessons learned here – and I’m looking forward to catching them again later in the summer.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Brighton 2012.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.