Oscar Wilde

The Importance of Being Earnest

26/02/20

Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh

We’re a little late to this because of conflicting dates in our calendar and, it must be said, that in the depths of a very chill February, Bedlam Theatre is not a venue for the faint-hearted. But, suitably wrapped up in layers of winter clothing, we soon discover that this is a production worth braving the elements for.

The Importance of Being Earnest is probably Oscar Wilde’s funniest play. It’s certainly his most quotable effort, fairly bristling with those witty, erudite one-liners that he’s justifiably acclaimed for. It marked the climax of his career – at the opening night in 1895, Wilde was presented with that infamous bouquet by the Marquess of Queensberry, and the rest is tragedy.

The play is, of course, mostly about the titular character, who is Jack in the city and Ernest in the country, largely because he’s an orphan who was discovered, as a baby, in the left luggage department of Victoria station. In a handbag. (A handbag?). He’s played here by Gordon Stackhouse, with just the right amount of angel-faced insouciance, delivering a deadpan double-act with his best friend, Algernon (Fergus Head – last seen by B&B in the thought-provoking, Education, Education, Education).

Ernest/Jack is wildly in love with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolyn (Aine Higgins), but must first convince her overbearing mother, Lady Bracknell (Ishbell McLachlan), that he has what it takes to be a suitable husband. Lady B is, of course, a gift for any actor and McLachlan makes the most of the opportunity, firing on all cylinders and portraying her as magnificently awful, with a voice that could stop a runaway ox in its stride.

Algernon meanwhile (who is also pretending to be Ernest – don’t ask) takes one look at Jack’s young ward, Cecily (Georgie Carey), and proposes marriage to her. How the ensuing complications are untangled is the stuff of wild(e) farce, and this jaunty three-act play virtually rockets along, coaxing much laughter from the audience along the way. It’s a student production, so the props are on the rickety side, but they’ve done wonders with what they’ve got (somebody please give these people a bigger budget!). I’m onside from the opening salvo of Smiths/Pulp/Beastie Boys tracks that precede the first act. A final scene where the cast dance gleefully along to Primal Scream’s Rocks is frankly an inspired touch.

I think Oscar would have approved.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

A Woman of No Importance

01/10/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

We all know what to expect from a play by Oscar Wilde, right? Lots of self-satisfied characters uttering verbal witticisms and arch remarks, as they view society from their well-uphostered perches. A Woman of No Importance, first performed in 1892, ticks all the boxes. Indeed, it’s so packed with memorable lines that I occasionally feel like I’m trapped in a book of theatrical quotes.

Lady Hunstanton (Liza Goddard) is hosting a soiree at her country house, and the great and the good are gathered for the occasion. The guests include American visitor, Miss Hester Worsely (Georgia Landers), and the odious Lord Illingworth (Mark Meadows), who prides himself on his rakish qualities. But when the mysterious Mrs Abuthnot (Katy Stephens) puts in a late appearance, it’s clear that she and Illingworth have previous history.  It turns out that they share a former connection that will have serious repercussions for Mrs Arbuthnot’s son, Gerald (Tim Gibson). He has just been offered the role of Lord Illingworth’s private secretary. Awkward.

This is a lavishly mounted production, but not everything works as well as it might. The decision to have elaborate scene changes covered by comic ditties by veteran performer Roy Hudd, in the role of Reverend Daubeny, seems to have been drafted in from an entirely different kind of production. It doesn’t help that I struggle to hear the lyrics of old favourites like Pretty Little Polly Perkins from Paddington Green – but, more importantly, these interludes seem to have nothing in common with the rest of the show. (I can almost imagine Oscar wincing in the wings as the songs unfold).

Despite this misstep, there are some strong performances here: Goddard is a delight as the endearingly forgetful Lady Hunstanton and Meadows entirely convincing as a thoroughly bad egg in dire need of a slapped face. Isla Blair is delightfully deadpan as the acid-tongued Lady Caroline Pontefract and Emma Amos excels as the rebellious Mrs Allenby.

The play itself is a bit of a mixed bag. Its heart is clearly in the right place and its defence of the inequalities of womanhood must have seemed positively groundbreaking when it was first performed – but there’s a prospensity too for over-sentimentality. Wilde’s evident belief that America was an innocent new world, where old indiscretions could be shrugged off and where promising new horizons beckoned, now feels ridiculously optimistic – but, of course, Oscar had his own reasons for hating his homeland’s interpretation of ‘morality’.

Fans of Mr Wilde – and there are many of them – should have a field day with this.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney