Acting on the Wilde side

earnest cast

Battle lines: Martin Jarvis as John Worthing, in mourning for his brother, the late Ernest Worthing, set to engage in fisticuffs with his friend Algernon, posing as his very much alive brother Ernest, who is in fact lying dead in Paris even though he never actually existed. Following so far? Keeping the peace is Christine Kavanagh as Cecily watched by Niall Buggy as the Rev Canon Chasuble and Rosalind Ayres as Miss Prism.

The importance of being Earnest

The New Alexandra Theatre


FIRST, as Johnny Mercer suggested, let’s accentuate the positive; the Bunbury Players provided us with a highly entertaining and amusing evening, and, as far as a comedy is concerned, you can’t ask for much more.

They also provided us with an interesting idea, how to squeeze actors of, should we say, more mature years, into the roles of  . . . lesser mature characters.

Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis played male leads Algernon Moncrieff and John Worthing at the National Theatre 30 years ago, and, as that is beyond the supposed ages of the characters they played, fitting such . . . distinguished Thespians into Wilde’s classic satire as men about town in their late twenties presents somewhat of a challenge.

Havers, with his slim frame, boyish charm and bouffant hair, which he flicks regularly to good effect, might just get away with it from a distance, after all acting is a form of deception, pretending to be Earnest castsomething you are not, but Jarvis, ten years his senior, and with a better upholstered frame, would need considerably more distance between him and audience to carry off the illusion of youth.

So, welcome to the Bunbury Players, Morton St Cuthbert’s celebrated, award winning amateur dramatic group recreating their celebrated etc. etc. production of The Importance of Being Earnest as we join them for their final rehearsal.

Christine Kavanagh as Cecily with her Ernest, Nigel Havers and Cherie Lunghi as Gwendolen with hers played by Martin Jarvis

As a device it is a bit of a curate’s egg, an interesting but not fully convincing idea and one which worked better if you actually know the play the Bunburys are rehearsing. A friend seated nearby had never seen Wilde’s play, so for the opening act was all at sea as to what was Wilde and what was tame, so to speak.

And tame it was. Wilde’s dialogue is witty, sharp and gloriously funny while the added scenes of the amateurs arriving for their rehearsal in the living room of two of their members, a marvellous set from William Dudley incidentally, were more utilitarian, lightweight, rather like the opening of one of those light hearted, easily forgotten farces much used by amateur companies to add fun and variety to their programme. Wilde it was not, and it showed.

There were sporadic attempts to carry on the amateur rehearsal humour with varying success, the running cucumber sandwiches joke was perhaps the best line, but by the second act we were down to just the play and it was all the better for it.

A play such as Noises Off mixes on and off stage action in a play within a play scenario, while this production rather falls between two stools neither making enough of the rehearsal and the characters to create a new play – there is more about the Bunburys in the programme than on stage – nor getting into its stride in earnest until those unfamiliar with Wilde are thoroughly confused.

Yes many of the cast are far too old for their roles, but they were having fun and so were we, and let us be honest the real star of the play is Wilde’s witty observations of late Victorian society and the cast delivered the lines so well we hardly cared about how many candles they needed on their birthday cakes, after all audiences are regularly asked to suspend belief over much greater issues than age - think of reality television for example . . .

So, the play’s the thing and the Bunburys in their small Cheshire village have been blessed with a fine cast with Siân Phillips superb as Lady Bracknell, one of the great female, (and sometime male), roles.

Miss Phillips gives us a Lady Bracknell who is so sure of herself and the order and nuances of society that she commands and demands respect, she also has soNigel Havers and Martin Jarvuisme of the best lines in British theatre which always helps.

Then there is Cherie Lunghi, as Gwendolen and Christine Kavanagh as Cecily, proving age is no barrier to fine acting. Their battle scene was a delight.

This was two actresses, combined age comfortably into three figures, playing young girls fighting for the love of young Ernest, two different Ernests as it turned out, and we believed every word, every sugar lump and every slab of cake.

Like naughty schoolboys the excellent pair of Nigel Havers as Algernon and Martin Jarvis as John await their fate in love at the hands of Cecily and Gwendolen

Cecily’s education comes from her governess Miss Prism, played by Birmingham born Rosalind Ayres, wife of Jarvis incidentally. The pair will be celebrating their ruby wedding a month today (Nov 23) incidentally, so early congratulations for that.

Ayres’ Prism is prim and proper much of the time but we see a lovely girlish charm as she gets excited about a walk with her secret passion, the rector, the Rev Canon Chasuble D.D. in a gloriously over the top performance from Niall Buggy, another who could have used his bus pass to get to the theatre – but who cares. He was funny and that is all that matters.

Patrick Godfrey pottered about between his garden, the ashes Test, and twin roles of London manservant and then country butler, Lane and Merriman and there was support from Portia Booroff, Carole Dance and Hugh Osborne as prompt, props, wardrobe, sound and Jacks and Jills of all trades in the opening scenes.

Director Lucy Bailey has managed to keep up a good pace and by the second act when the play has taken over we have forgotten all about the Bunburys or indeed that this is supposed to be a rehearsal in the house of two of the amateur group's members, and we are just watching and enjoying a confident, well-acted, beautifully timed performance of Wilde and perhaps there is something that can be learned there. To 25-10-14

Roger Clarke



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