Red Rose Chain’s spring production is a new one by artistic director Joanna Carrick of Oscar Wilde’s best-known comedy. Carrick has provided a framing induction(?) which involves the 1960s descendants of Wilde’s 1890s characters clearing out the old family country home – now too big and too expensive to maintain. Quite frankly, this adds nothing but an extra gloss of artificiality to the play proper, but I suppose such things are in fashion.
This is a theatre-in-the-round staging, which place a special load on the actors, especially when they’re required to engage directly with the audience. The design eam – Carrick, David Newborn, Jack Heydon and Leo George – circulate the prologue, the main play and the epilogue – around a couple of packing-cases, a chaise longue, a tea-trolley and a tin-toned upright piano.
Joanna Sawyer is the musical director and choreographer, and she keeps her cast on the move, notably in the case of Lawrence Russell’s whirlwind Jack (he also plays Chasuble and Frank in the framing scenes). Laurence Pears contrasts lankily as Algernon and a simpering Miss Prism. The men’s quick changes of costume, especially in scenes where both the characters they play are on-stage simultaneously, is a delight to watch.
Of the women, we first meet Sawyer as Frnk’s trendy fiancée, all Carnaby Street mini-skirt and high-boots – not to mention wielding an oversize demonstration banner with theories to match. Her Cecily has a similar sparkle, manipulating her young-girl flounced skirt to devasting effect as far as Algy is concerned. Leonie Spilsbury is the slightly repressed Eloise and the confident débutante Gwendolyn; one has a horrid feeling that she might indeed end up as her mother’s true daughter.
Butlers Merriman (a misnomer if ever there was one) and Lane are doubled by Antony Carrick. At the end, Lane’s nostalgia has something of the dying fall impact of Firs from The Cherry Orchard. Joanna Carrick’s Lady Bracknell tries too hard to make us “get the point”; by this stage in his career, Wilde knew precisely how to let a line work with its hearers, without over-pointing by the actor. Those bare arms for a society matron in daytime clothes also jar.
Three and a half-star rating.
The Importance of Being Earnest continues at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 9 April.