Tag Archives: Judith Rae

The Importance of Being Earnest

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 9 April

Wilde’s most popular comedy went through several changes before its 1895 première. The principal one was compressing four into three acts, though two characters seem also to have been eliminated – a gardener called Moulton and another person called Grimsby.

Moulton has re-emerged in Alastair Whatley’s production for the Original Theatre Company, but here as a parlour-maid, a non-speaking rôle for Judith Rae, who seems to be employed both by Thomas Howe’s Algernon Moncrieff and Peter Sandys-Clarke’s Jack Worthing.

Designer Gabrielle Slade has conjured a fretwork set of art nouveau curves against which the costume palette uses mainly browns and an eye-catching turquoise. Howes sports two outfits, which I’m afraid put me in mind of Mr Toad, in green. Neither man seems to possess formal town clothes for the Act One tea-party.

Comedy, even farce – which this is not for all its cascades of wisecracks and ludicrous situations – needs a featherweight touch if we are really to feel inside the joke and not just experiencing it at a remove. Everyone on stage comes over as trying just a bit too hard.

Hannah Louise Howell’s Gwendolyn is the most sophisticated of débutantes; her expressions as she follows her mother’s exchanges with Algy and Jack are an object lesson in reaction. Louise Coulthard’s Cecily suggests just the right amount of steel to dilute her apparent wholesome winsomeness.

Playing Miss Prism as a flask-swigging gorgon does Susan Penhaligon no favours while Simon Shackleton’s doubling of Lane and Merriman fails to differentiate between the two trusted retainers. Geoff Aymer’s Canon Chasuble doesn’t really fit comfortably into the second and third acts.

It’s only fair that most of the audience seemed to love it, laughing heartily at Algy’s insatiable appetite and Jack’s increasingly frantic to keep control of his rickety raft of contradictory situations. Gwen Taylor’s swoops to the forefront as Lady Bracknell, one with rather more of a sense of humour than is sometimes allowed, and the ability not to stumble over the “handbag” tripwire.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Importance of Being Earnest continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 14 April with matinées on  12 and 14 April.

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And Then There Were None

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 4 August)

Justice’s sword has always had two sharp edges, as Agatha Christie’s novels and plays wll demonstrate. None more so perhaps than And Then There Were None – both novel and self-dramatisation – which first appeared during the Second World War, and has had a variety of titles (depending on the shifting sands of political correctness) ever since.

We are in a palatial villa on a very small island just off the English coast in that febrile period between the two wars. Simon Scullion presents us with a stunning art déco set which wouldn’t disgrace Eltham Palace for this summer tour by Bill Kenwright and the Agatha Christie Theatre Company. The production is correctly given with two intervals, by the way.

As the apparently unconnected group of eight invited guests arrive on the island, to be greeted by resident houseman Rogers, his cook wife and the host’s secretary Vera Claythorne, it soon becomes apparent that the host and hostess are detained elsewhere and that the only thing to do is to wait in apparent isolation. Director Joe Harmston takes the opening sequences sufficiently leisurely to allow appreciation of the different characters to evolve.

By Act Two, the audience has been presented with a variety of clues as the tension builds after the revelation that all the characters have caused deaths and evaded the consequences. The question is, who wields justice’s sword? – Disguised ex-policeman Blore (Gary Mavers)? Retired general MacKenzie (Eric Carte) or former officer Lombard (Ben Nealon)? Or could it be Dr Armstrong (Mark Curry) or Mr or Mrs Rogers (Frazer Hines and Judith Rae)? Surely it cannot be either devout dowager Miss Brent (Deborah Grant) or stylish secretary Claythorne (Kezia Burrows)?

As lad-about-town Marston (Tom McCarron) is the fist victim of the “Ten little soldier-boys” riddle, it’s certainly not him. Why would it be former High Court judge Sir Lawrence Wargrave (Neil Stacey)? The only person not in the frame is local fishman and ferry owner Fred Narracott (Jan Knightley). Douglas Kuhrt’s lighting comes into its own at the start of the third act as the remaining guests wait for the next death by candlelight, which is brighter than the fading trust among them.

The cast is an excellent one, radiating that brittle mixture of confidence and uncertainties which one associates with the between-wars period. I’ve seen this thriller several times before but never with the ending offered here. Much discussion went on with the packed Bury St Edmunds audience in the intervals as to who the master-mind might be. Not one of my neighbours guessed correctly – and I refused to give the game away, then as now.

And Then There Were None runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 8 August, at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 24 and 29 August and at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff from 21 to 26 September.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015