There is a tendency with productions of Oscar Wilde’s classic play to go for a traditional setting with period costumes and an over-styled delivery of those famous lines which have themselves become more well-known than the play itself...“A Handbag”, anyone?... It is this traditional approach which often results in the play not really resonating with modern audiences. How refreshing then, to be treated to a production with a completely new take on the text; with set design stripped back to basics and performances that allow the subtlety of Wilde’s wit to shine through, without the need for over-emphasis.
The play centres around Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff who have invented fictitious friends and alter egos as a means by which to escape their duties and enjoy more leisure time, both posing as Jack’s fictional brother Ernest Worthing in order to secure the hand of the woman they love. Director Bethany Hughes’ clever decision to move the setting of the play from 1885 to 1968 provides the perfect backdrop for a play in which the younger characters are challenging the decisions of older generations. She breathes new life into the characters and a modern interpretation into the dialogue, bringing out the sharpness of the humour without the need to play for laughs.
The basic 1960s set design of signature print wallpaper and retro lampshades focused the play immediately in this new era and the cast and crew work seamlessly together, with costumed set changes adding to the slickness of the production. A special mention to Melody Faulkner and Michele Faulkner for the costume design creating a 1960’s look that was both evocative of the era but perfect for the status of each character.
The cast work extremely well together with little touches of humour throughout ensuring that even the smallest roles have a moment in the spotlight. Gerhard Steyn (Lane), Peter Bayliss (Dr Chausable) and Melody Faulkner (Merriman) each share beautiful droll moments across the play, while Angela Ingram shines in Miss Prism’s revelatory scene towards the end.
Following in the growing trend of cross-gender casting, Chris Cooper – completely believable in black patent stilettos and beehive wig - is delightful as a high society Lady Bracknell. His delivery is subtle and measured, bringing more truth to the famous role than I have ever seen played before.
Yet, it is in the performances of the two young couples that this production really shines. Joseph McElligott and Jason Farries are equally strong as Jack and Algernon and are the perfect foils to each other. Kimberley Bradshaw has excellent comic timing and expression in her innocent portrayal of Cecily Cardew, matched wonderfully by Emma Doran’s poise and cutting delivery as a swinging-sixties Gwendolyn Fairfax. Together they create a superb quartet that pushes the production along at break-neck speed.
Having been left wanting with other productions of The Importance of Being Earnest, I confess that it was with some trepidation that I attended SSA Drama’s performance last night... I need not have worried. Thank you to all involved for reinventing this classic and changing my perceptions for the better.
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