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Importance of Being Earnest (Richmond Theatre), review

Lucy Bailey’s re-imagining of Oscar Wilde’s classic play comes to Richmond Theatre direct from the West End and a short tour which has stopped at Bath, Brighton, Aylesbury, and finally comes to a stop at Birmingham next week.  Reviews have not been kind to the ‘Bunbury Players’ who have put on this show.

But just a moment – let’s take a step back.  The conceit of this production is that it is now a play within a play – an ageing group of amateur players putting on a dress rehearsal of their long-running version of the ‘Importance’ in the sitting room of George (who plays the roles of Lane and Merriman), and Lavinia (Lady Bracknell).  So you get funny, but rather unnecessary bookending segments written by Simon Brett

The actors are so much older than those usually playing the parts, they practically creak along – Martin Jarvis at 72 plays Jack Worthing, Nigel Havers, ten years younger, is Algernon Moncrieff.  Cherie Lunghi as Gwendolen and Christina Kavanagh as Cecily are certainly mature, while at 81, Sian Phillips has a last hurrah as emoting the ‘handbag’ line.  I only mention the ages because they play up to them – it doesn’t actually matter once the play proper gets going.

Some reviews have stated that if you love Wilde’s play, you will hate this, but not so.  I found it an affectionate spoof which is genuinely funny, and which does not damage the fabric of the play that much – it doesn’t matter that Gwendolen’s costume splits and needs to be sewn by the costume lady during the scene, or that cucumber sandwiches arrive just in time for Lane’s ‘not even for ready money’ line.  Giggles do come from Havers’ Algy having to change out of trainers into slippers mid-speech, or his ingratiating winks at the audience.

I especially liked the interplay between Lunghi and Kavanagh in the garden scene, which makes this scene sharp and fresh, while Rosalind Ayres is fun as Miss Prism, all twitches and wide-eyed mock innocence, and Niall Buggy as the drunken actor who suddenly morphs into the clearly enunciating vicar is fine.  Patrick Godfrey as George/Lane may be more interested in the test match scores but those of us who remember the 2002 film know he can play the dual manservant roles standing on his head.  Here he just has fun.

The programme, too, entertains, with a spoof set of biographies and adverts.  Delightful.

I’d have a laugh watching the Bunbury Players do this play, were they real, but as they are not, I enjoyed watching this group of veterans gently joshing Wilde’s characters into sharp relief.  I would not have let the play go on beyond Wilde’s famous final line, though.


Archive TV review: The Samaritan + The Ballad of Ben Bagot

Two plays by Peter Terson showed at the BFI Southbank this week as part of their season of his work (entitled ‘The Artisan Playwright’). The first example was from Granada Television in 1972, and the second from the BBC in 1973, so we are looking at television material from four decades ago, when there were only three channels and the amount of single drama available on the small screen was much more than today.

First up we had ‘The Samaritan’, a three-hander running just over an hour which starred Tom Bell, Martin Jarvis, and Kenneth Cranham (Cranham gave a brief introduction to the piece where he recalled this play as one of his first appearances on television). Jarvis plays Godfrey, a Samaritan who seems to live to listen and do good to others. Bell plays Vic, a hard drinking neurotic poet who is given to flowery speeches and impulsive gestures, while Cranham plays Terry, a nervy young man who is recovering from some trauma which we never quite identify. Wordy and clever, this play moves between character viewpoints and therefore leaves the viewer torn between what they originally saw and what they see by the end of the piece. Although all the cast are excellent, it is Bell who really dominates the play and shows us what a great actor he was.

The second play was ‘The Ballad of Ben Bagot’, which was written for the Scene strand of plays aimed at difficult teenagers, and it runs a sparse twenty-five minutes. Director Ronald Smedley recalled in his introduction to this his unease at receiving a script which was simply poetry which he had to shape into a narrative which worked using music and locations. Peter Firth, then eighteen years old, shows what a talented young performer he was in the pivotal role of Bagot, who has chosen to leave school early and get a job to support his pregnant girlfriend, but in-between the mundane parts of his life he dreams a fantasy life not unreminiscent of Billy Liar, where he triumphs with his shoehorn sword, beats a path through the jungle, and repurposes classic poems for his own heroics (‘Ben Bagot, may his tribe increase, awoke one day from a deep dream of peace ..’). His English Lit teacher (played by a twitchy Jack Shepherd) despairs of his charge while Bags sets fire to his school uniform and aches for a freedom where he can be a pop star or a great business brain.

An interesting pairing, perhaps linked together by the common theme of the poetic soul, and of course the words of Peter Terson, who was a writer of style, wit, and quirkiness, the type of playwright who would never get a platform on commercial television today. The season continues throughout May, and a future entry on LouReviews will cover another pair of plays showing next week.


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