This is the version of Wilde’s play which is being publicised heavily because of the casting of David Suchet as Lady Bracknell, and if this feels like stunt casting (it isn’t really, he isn’t the first man to put on the dress and give the immortal handbag line), I’m pleased to say it has paid off.
A sparking comedy of manners, this production by Adrian Noble, former RSC artistic director, sizzles with energy and benefits from an excellent pair of performances from newcomer Emily Barber as Gwendolyn and the hilarious mugger Imogen Doel as Cecily.
Playing as broadly as the script allows, their garden scene is a hoot and Barber’s reaction to the marriage proposal in Act One is hugely entertaining. Doel’s Cecily is a fiery child not to be trifled with, and her clumsy flirting is seriously scary!
As the two gentlemen who use deceit to enable themselves to have good times, Michael Benz as Jack and Philip Cumbus (last seen in the Trafalgar Studio Richard III as Richmond) as Algy are thoroughly modern chaps who fight over muffins and become lovelorn at the slightest opportunity.
Michele Dotrice and Richard O’Callagan are a fine Prism and Chasuble, a veritable comedy team fairly quivering with unsuppressed attraction. In their hands the final reconciliation ‘at last’ is believeable, and her twittering delight at the prospect of a stroll is hilarious.
This leaves us with Suchet’s Lady B. His is a frightful caricature, with exaggerated expressions and reactions which liven up her first interrogation of Jack in particular, with the slow opening of the black book, the shudder of distate about railway stations, and the look of distain she gives her daughter’s intended suitor. It’s a performance which is just a step back from the pantomime dame, but it richly mines the comic potential of this greatest of female characterisations.
In Act Three his return bodes a change from the ‘gorgon’ to something softer, as this Aunt Augusta has a past of poverty and a marriage based on money, not love, and there may be just a little bit of regret when all ends happily without a thought for her, an essentially nouveau riche vulgar harridan whose exaggeration comes out of insecurity.
It’s an interesting take on the story in a production which is not perfect, but which is effortlessly entertaining, from David Killick’s snipey Lane through to Brendan Hooper’s Merriman (which an air of resignation whether ordering a dog cart or serving cake at tea).