Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, which is presented by Shropshire Youth Theatre at Theatre Severn until Thursday 6th April.
How do you deliver the ‘Hangbag’ line?
It’s Oscar Wilde’s most famous joke and actors playing the domineering Lady Bracknell have for a century been trying to outdo each other in the quest to get it just right. To whisper, or to let rip? That is the question.
Maddy Page can barely spit it out at first. As if surprised by the stone within a prune, she manoeuvres the word around her mouth to fully taste its bitter fruit before projecting the kernel fiercely into the stalls. I’ve not seen it delivered like that before … and this excellent youth production of Wilde’s classic comedy contains many other moments of originality.
It’s the maturity of the performances that impresses the most. It’s hard to believe you are watching budding teenagers. Maddy wants to go to RADA in September and they’d be fools not to take her. She simply luxuriates in the part – as if Wilde had her in mind when he wrote it. Her poise and precision as the Queen of the Society Put Down is right up there with Rutherford, Routledge and Dench. The front row would have been trembling … if they weren’t too busy laughing.
And the rest of the cast match her all the way.
The perfect pairing of city coiffured Gwendolen and natural country girl Cecily is either a damned good bit of casting or an excellent slice of luck. So often in professional productions, the girls are blandly interchangeable. But designer and director Beverley Baker and Andrew Bannerman have capitalised on Jess Halliday and Katie Edwards’ inherent attributes to create two distinctly different and thoroughly enjoyable characters.
Jess plays Gwendolen with a cut-glass delivery and a forced aloofness that proclaims breeding; whilst Katie’s equally well-brought up Cecily is loose-haired, wide-face and charmingly unsophisticated. So when they pendulum from being firm friends through catty enemies to lionesses, the comedy is all the better.
It’s the girls who usually shine in youth theatre. But here the boys are equally excellent. Sammy Jones plays the louche Algernon as the ultimate, acerbic rake of the day, whilst Krishan Jones presents us with a very correct, upright and professional Jack who is (excuse me) ‘earnest’ in everything he does – till he convincingly loses his rag when the gloves of love come off.
It’s a joy to watch two 21st century lads discussing Victorian etiquette so satirically and delivering 19th century comic repartee with such effect. The Shropshire jokes are a particular highlight. I suspect they’ve been force fed cucumber sandwiches just to heighten their authenticity.
The cameo actors are also spot on. Annabel Love, bravely padded for the part, is prim and proper as Miss Prism; suitably shocked at the final revelation about the contents of the handbag and melting round the edges under the Canon Chasuble’s adoring gaze. The reverend is played as a pompous-but-loveable oaf by the admirable Oliver Turner. And the chorus of stately servants is a nice touch. They chatter away as they change the set – and line up wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the antics of their so-called betters. Chloe Townend only has to raise an eyebrow to turn Lane into a prototype Jeeves.
The whole show last night was elegantly played at a cracking pace in front of a heartily amused full house.
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