The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde

Octagon Theatre Bolton

Albert Halls, Bolton

6 June 2019 – 15 June 2019; 2hr 45min, inc 30min interval. Closing appeal for donations

The cast of Octagon Theatre Bolton's production of The Importance of Being Earnest at Albert Halls, Bolton. All pictures: Octagon Theatre Bolton

For this expedition to the upper Albert Hall – the Octagon is currently being rebuilt – Octagon Theatre Bolton presents Oscar Wilde’s classic.

It’s a different business from The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, which they did there at the beginning of the year. No worries about musical sound values or balance, no need for a dual-level set; just a pile of miscellaneous props, big suspended cloths, a contrived ‘wall’ of odd-bedfellow pictures and a text full of aphorisms and one-liners that have to be delivered in pretty short order to gain their effect - with the attendant difficulty of getting the words across in the resonant acoustic.

On the whole the cast solves that problem well. The trick is to keep projecting straight into the audience – anything delivered to the side will be lost on most listeners – and they do just that. But then, how to replicate the near joke-confiding to the theatre of some of those lines, and sustain variety in the way the dialogue unfolds?

In Suba Das’s production, they go for nods and winks to the stalls, and the entire action is presented almost as a parody of Oscar Wilde acting, rather than as a comedy of Victorian manners. It’s more in the style of a farce than anything else, and that gets laughs – plenty of them – and must be credited for telling the story plainly and with lots of fun.

If there is a theme, it’s about keeping up appearances, 1890s style, or the multi-faceted hypocrisy of the upper classes in an age when the illusion of morality was far more important than the reality (after all, the reason for the plot-line is that a baby born to an aristocratic family was given to a servant, dumped - in the famous handbag - in a railway station cloak room and never bothered with again; what an appalling sequence of events).

If that sounds too serious a take on the story, look at the parades of bowing and scraping at the start of each act (and in the final calls) and the recurrent posing for imaginary photographs as a flashlight pops during the play, technically very well done, so there are hints of something deep amid the jokes.

Some of the characterisations are little more than competent caricatures – David Cardy as Dr Chasuble is almost a grinning Dick Emery vicar re-born, and Sarah Ball’s Lady Bracknell - fanfared by the sound technician on her every entry so presumably meant to be a kind of Wonderland Queen of Hearts - just a bit too loud.

But Jack Hardwick and Dean Fagan has the measure of Jack and Algernon, and Vicky Entwistle is fine as Miss Prism.

Of the two girls, Elizabeth Twells cavorts through as Gwendolen (though why she is bidden to ‘take advantage of Mama’s temporary absence’ in the opening scene by doing a strip and nymphomaniac impression I don’t see). Melissa Lowe, as Cecily, is the stand-out, managing to be both funny, feisty and endearingly goofy at the same time.

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