Review: The Importance of Being Earnest

Arjun Sajip 24 November 2012

The Importance of Being Earnest

Old Combination Room, Trinity College, 8pm, until Sun 25 Nov

Oscar Wilde’s last play, written in 1895, remains both hilarious and relatively easy to produce, making it one of the most staged student plays. It will probably continue to be this way for some time, given the play’s endurance; this is a shame, considering that not only did Wilde write other plays, but there are plenty of other works waiting to be adapted by talented Cantabrigians. The Dryden Society’s adaptation of Earnest yesterday, directed by Charles Houseago, left something to be desired, namely a spark of originality – apart from some freshly-made cucumber sandwiches, nothing new was brought to the table.

The opulent OCR of Trinity College seems an apposite place to stage it; a charming introduction from the baritoned Nathan Jeffers as Lane (he also doubled as Merriman) whetted our appetites further. I was eager to see how Algernon would be played, but unfortunately, Henry Tozer’s piano-playing and sartorial flourishes were his strongest suit: not only was his posh accent unconvincing, but he delivered several important lines almost sotto voce, and his range of facial expressions seemed limited. This was a shame, as Algernon is one of the great characters of comic literature: his empty but sabre-sharp wit should puncture the atmosphere, enriching it and deflating it simultaneously. Tozer did neither, though he certainly looked the part. A better performance came from Richard Nicholl as Jack; ostensibly the straight man, his superior delivery and exasperated expressions made him the funnier character. In the early part of the play, however, the show was stolen by Jeffers, who made a highly entertaining butler.

As Jeffers played both Lane and Merriman, I felt it would have been funnier (and more original) if he had played the two characters very differently; an incredibly camp Merriman, for example, might have worked. But as entertaining as he was, the four actresses were the shining lights of the performance: Megan Henson’s delivery, charming facial expressions and attention to detail made her an excellent Gwendolen, while Helena Blair was a winsome and winning Cecily. The meeting-conflict-reconciliation scene was particularly well-played and well-paced; credit should go to Houseago for pacing the play well, though I felt the last two acts could have been faster. It is a farce, after all. Kathryn Akers can hardly be blamed for failing to live up to Edith Evans’ unforgettable Lady Bracknell, but her interpretation was solid and entertaining, complemented by Hannah Schuhle-Lewis as a jittery Miss Prism.

Wilde’s play is utterly delightful, and it would have to be a bad performance indeed to make it drag. Houseago’s production was by no means bad; some excellent acting made it overall rather entertaining. But it’s easy to make Earnest entertaining. More difficult is making it original, and this, I felt, was the most salient shortcoming of the play. A bit of self-awareness, perhaps, or some directorial flourishes, would have elevated a decent staging of a stock play into a memorable production.

Arjun Sajip