Revitalising age-old classic plays can be something of a gamble- especially for comedies, with jokes that left the original audiences in stitches liable to fall extremely flat. Yet it’s rarely a problem for Oscar Wilde whose talents as a wordsmith, particularly in the fields of comedy and razor-sharp satire, have left both him and his quotes as cultural icons.
His last and best-known play, The Importance of Being Earnest, is no exception. Following the efforts of upper-class bachelors Jack (Fela Lufadeju) and Algernon (Edward Franklin) to win the hands in marriage of their respective crushes (Martha Mackintosh and Sharan Phull) under the name of Jack’s alter-ego, his fictional trouble-making brother Earnest, it remains a timeless classic to this day. It’s a small wonder, then, that Leicester’s Curve Theatre decided to pass the time in lockdown by releasing a fully-captioned recording of their, and the Birmingham Reparatory Theatre’s, 2016 outing of the play, directed by Nikolai Foster.
Unfortunately, the said recording is not without its flaws. Unlike other productions now available online, it’s an archive recording that was never intended for public consumption. Upon watching it, this becomes painfully obvious, with the single camera right at the back of the theatre unable- and, understandably given the aforementioned context, not actually trying- to capture what original audiences would have seen. The actors’ facial expressions, for example, are all but invisible. What can be seen in vivid detail is the set, which consists of floor-to-ceiling mirrors plus opulent furniture and, for the country setting, brightly-coloured flowers strung from the ceiling. Live on stage, all of this made one reviewer ‘openly gasp in wonder as to [its] inception and beauty’, but on film the mirrors end up nearly upstaging the actors, and giving the whole show a garish, tacky feel. The music produces some moments of good comic timing, but is mostly out-of-tune and therefore painfully jarring.
However, none of these issues should put those looking for some evening entertainment off of watching this production. If you suffer from spectrophobia, a fear of mirrors, you might want to give it a miss, but otherwise there’s little excuse for missing out on its many good points.
It seems a little redundant to praise the script but, even 120 years after his death, Wilde’s creativity continues to make him the star of his own work. And yet, his witticisms would mean little were they not utilised to full effect by a clearly talented cast. Franklin often steals the show as the hedonistic, irreverent Algernon, and has excellent chemistry with Phull who gives a dreamy, endearing performance as the overactivity imaginative Cecily. Lufadeju also shines as Jack, whose mounting indignation at Algie’s misadventures makes for some of the play’s funniest scenes.
Commanding the entire stage in every scene she’s in, however, is Cathy Tyson as the infamous Lady Bracknell (who, incidentally, stands out as possibly the first woman of colour to take on the role). She does a consistently solid job of capturing every side of the character, from her domineering, social-climbing arrogance to her comparatively admirable ability to outmatch the men in verbal sparring. In particular, her rendition of the now-iconic line “A hand-bag?” is utterly note-perfect, and guaranteed to have stuck-at-home theatre buffs laughing along with the live audience.
In short, despite its recording’s less-than-desirable quality, The Curve’s Earnest is a fun, well-acted production. It’s certainly worthwhile viewing for anyone yearning for the theatres to reopen, and especially for fans of its timeless writer.
Words by Emma Curzon.
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