‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ was quaint.
After COVID-19 prevented St Luke’s Theatre Society from performing for an entire year, the company has returned to a charming new venue to bring Oscar Wilde’s most famous play to life!
For those not acquainted with the works of Wilde, or the 2002 movie starring Colin Firth, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is a “trivial comedy for serious people”. It tells the story of John Worthing (Jason Nash) and Algernon Moncrieff (Stephen Quinn) as they take to bending the truth in order to inject some excitement in their lives and woo their women. Things start to go awry for them in a case of mistaken identity when they end up in the country together and their façades are unravelled.
In a play like ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, Wilde’s witty words are always the standout and director Gary O’Neil admirably brought the playwrights world to life. Some transitions could have been snappier as they seemed to dawdle compared to the quick wittiness of the previous scenes.
In order to let the content shine, the majority of scenes consisted of just the characters sitting and talking. This worked for the most part but would occasionally hinder the story as there wasn’t much stimulation for the audience. However, when this blocking was interrupted, it made for many hilarious standout moments through physical theatre. A notable example was when John and Algernon were on the outskirts of either side of the stage and in an attempt to “suavely” eavesdrop on Gwendolen and Cecily in between them, both slowly encroached on centre stage, taking large dramatic strides. Another was John and Algernon’s melodramatic and passive-aggressive handshake. A particularly funny piece of direction was every time the phrase “severe chill” was uttered (describing how John’s non-existent brother Ernest “died”), Nash would complement the line with a physical representation of the chill. This made for a very funny motif repeated throughout the show.
Nash himself was a strong presence as John Worthing. An actor with excellent comic timing and expressions, he was engaging to watch. Nash also brought sincerity to his performance when discussing matters of Gwendolen or how he came to be found as a baby. He successfully elicited empathy from the audience despite his deception.
Other standout performances came from Stephen Quinn as Algernon Moncrieff, Beverley Wood as Lady Bracknell and Hannah Martin as Gwendolen Fairfax. All three performers fully committed to their acting choices and were enchanting to watch.
As the cheeky Algernon, Quinn was another solid anchor throughout the show. With an incredibly strong stage presence, he commanded every scene and excelled at playing with the tone and tempo in his voice, consistently providing an intriguing and exciting performance.
In the role of the infamous Lady Bracknell, Wood was stern and proper but never appeared clichéd. She exuded an air of superiority in all of her scenes and timed each of her lines perfectly. Wood brought light and shade to what could easily have been played as a stereotypical character.
Finally, Martin as Gwendolen was strong-minded, sophisticated and elegant. She also increased the likability of a character that is so superficial she is fixated on John’s name being Ernest, claiming she could never love a man whose name wasn’t Ernest. A testament to her natural performance was Martin’s blasé delivery of the iconic line, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”
Lara Latham created an innocent and youthful Cecily Cardrew. At times, Latham’s physicality could have enhanced her characterisation by having more purpose in her movements, but overall, she brought Cecily’s zest to life.
Desley Nichols was suitably stern as Ms Prism. Perhaps more eye contact with other actors was needed to truly focus Ms Prism as being the self-assured governess, but Nichols did a tremendous job of recounting John’s origin story to the audience. She also nicely developed the subtle side storyline of her relationship with Reverend Chasuble, played by Trevor Bond. Bond also transitioned nicely between the butler Lane and the northern-accented Reverend Chasuble.
Rounding out the cast was Lorne Jones as Merriman, whose brief-one word utterings provided a humorous contrast to the otherwise wordy show.
The set design by Una Hollingsworth was a highlight of the production. A play in three acts, each act had a different set, each beautifully and realistically painted. The first was the interior of the Moncrieff’s flat, the second was the stunning garden at the country Manor House and the third inside the Manor House’s drawing-room. This gorgeous artwork truly immersed the audience in Woolton and deserves the highest commendation.
Costuming by Nichols (with thanks to Villanova Players The Company, Savoyards Musical Theatre and Lia Surrentino) was spectacular. The ladies were decked out with frills and prissy, conservative 19th-century frocks. Particular mention goes to Lady Bracknell’s stunning green gown in the first act.
‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is an iconic play that everyone should experience in their lifetime. After a year away from the stage for St Luke’s Theatre Society, this show was an excellent choice for their return and they certainly produced a praiseworthy production.