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In a Handbag, Darkly
Published on Saturday, 18 August 2012
4

4 stars

theSpace on North Bridge (venue website)
Theatre
13-18, 20-25 Aug, 8:10pm-8:55pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Parents or guardians should consider the content of this show if children are attending.
 Free and unticketed. No pre-booking required.

Not long after the rose-tinted dénouement of The Importance Of Being Earnest, things aren’t quite going to plan.  Jack and Algernon conspire to murder each other, Gwendolyn’s not sure it is so important to marry Earnest after all, and a thoroughly-emancipated Cecily is off to travel the world.  The hapless Canon Chasuble appears to be locked in a cupboard – and another handbag’s just turned up at Victoria Station.

Robin Johnson’s “impertinent epilogue” to Earnest cleverly imagines what things would be like, if we lived in a Wildean world.  “Jack or Earnest” sums up the frustrations: they’re all doomed to a life of “hare-brained shenanigans”, filled with bizarre coincidence and inconsequential wit.  It’s a universe founded on whimsy, but it’s fully-realised and properly thought-through, ultimately building to a triumphant plot-twist based on one of its offbeat fundamental laws.

The founding strength of In A Handbag Darkly lies in its finely-honed writing: it’s a bold thing to say, but I genuinely feel the best of Johnson’s epithets can hold their own against Wilde’s.  And like all good parodies, the play says something meaningful about the work it lampoons.  The linguistic juxtapositions and witty contradictions often make no sense, but they still sound uncannily like lines penned by the master.

Acting and direction also impress, at least for a relatively modest production in a hotel function room.  There’s a nice contrast between the sophisticated Jack and the gently vulgar Algernon, with his shockingly loud blazer and working-class valet; and I liked the fact that the two men’s servants are played by a single actor (triggering plenty of shenanigans when they’re both together on stage).  The surprisingly large cast perform even minor roles with gusto, and you can look forward, in particular, to the imperious arrival of Lady Bracknell.  But a few of the jokes were under-sold; the glassy-eyed Merriman takes his deadpan demeanour too far for my taste, while Johnson himself was slightly disappointing as Algernon.

And the contents of that second handbag, when they were finally revealed, proved a little too bizarre.  On the one hand they offer a fittingly preposterous twist, but on the other they’re just physically impossible, a fact I found jarred more than it entertained.  Having constructed so carefully his elegant Wildean universe, I’m not convinced Johnson was wise to let a quite different kind of humour break in.

None of this, however, is enough to spoil a supremely entertaining and highly intelligent parody.  It’s tempting to say this is one for Wilde aficionados, but that’s not quite right; it’s one for those who admire Wilde’s prose, yet roll their eyes indulgently at his excesses.  It’s one for those who’ll spot a line from The Ballad Of Reading Gaol, but not be offended that it’s treated with levity.  If that’s you, you’ll love this play.  Grab the nearest handbag and rush along.

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