When aristocratic dandy Algernon Moncrieff (Alex Gunn) is visited by his good friend Ernest (Selina Lynch), a chain of events is triggered which will take the pair through the most unlikely of situations; from the town to the country, they face overbearing relatives, naïve young wards and, of course, learn the vital importance of being earnest. This play is subtitled ‘A Trivial Comedy for Serious People’ and this certainly reflects the general mood and overly-excessive characters for which Wilde’s work is famous. Featuring false identities, improbable discoveries, outrageous caricatures and cucumber sandwiches, Amy Hemsworth’s witty production is brimming with glorious repartee and generally strong performances.
In the tiny old dining room at St. Edmund’s Hall, the wood-panelled floors and ornate portraits adorning the walls really evoked the decadence associated with Wilde’s classic play. The team utilised the small space well, refusing to give in to minimalism and featuring enough aesthetic appeal to make Wilde himself happy. The chaise longue, old piano and other small props set the scene before the play even began; the audience knew they were in an upper-class Victorian house. The setting changed several times and new locations were just as elaborately crafted. The garden was presented with hanging flowers and watering cans and the morning room with wooden cabinets and other furnishings. One slight drawback was that the scene change between the second and third acts was comedically clunky, but in such a minute performance space you can hardly blame the crew for that.
The acting was mostly strong. Gunn and Lynch immediately set the tone in what were the best performances of the night, and their banter was undeniably engaging. The choice to use actors whose gender did not necessarily correspond to their character added an originality to the production that I did not expect, and Gunn and Lynch rivalled actors in professional productions. Gunn was enchantingly nonsensical as Algernon, who lives purely for pleasure, and Lynch had the difficult job of acting the “straight man” to Algernon but pulled it off with humour and without struggling to stand out next to her scene partner’s antics. Lady Bracknell (Connor Fox) was also a hilarious character in full pantomime-dame mode; Fox took the phrase “chewing the scenery” to a whole new level in the best of ways, and his insane eyes really brought the character together as an icon of Victorian hypocrisy. He also brought the energy way up which helped strengthen the other performances. Gwendolen (Katerina Konstantinidou) and Cecily (Sophie Gray) worked best together during the icy tea-party scene; Konstantinidou was alluringly seductive as Jack’s intelligent fiancée and Gray gave Cecily a charming naivety, although she did speak a little fast, which was hard to understand sometimes. Rounding out the main cast was the deadpan Miss Prism (Lea Pfefferman) and the smitten rector Dr. Chasuble (Rob Elkington); they took a little time to get into the roles but they were amusing in their portrayal of the characters.
My only general criticisms would be sound; considering it was such a small space, and I was only on the second row, it was a shame that I occasionally struggled to hear what was being said, so if the actors were to project more it would be of greater effect. There was also a slight dip in energy immediately after the interval, but again that quickly righted itself. Overall, however, this was a strong and original production of a frequently-performed play that will remain in the audience members’ minds for a long time after seeing it.
One final thing to mention is that all proceeds from this show are going to Stonewall, an LGBTQ+ charity, which was a fittingly excellent cause and another good reason to see the play. Oscar Wilde is one of the biggest gay icons in modern history and Earnest itself is celebrated as a queer play, even if Victorian society didn’t allow those themes to be at the forefront, so to see such an unashamedly queer-friendly production really makes you consider how far we have come as a society. And I think, if he could have seen this production, Mr. Wilde would be proud.