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Wednesday, 3 June 2009

An Earnestly Original Triumph

The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde Directed by Brian Bedford
Featuring Brian Bedford, Ben Carlson, Sarah Dodd, Sara Topham

The Story: Friends Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff reveal that they both lead double lives, and get into the habit of adopting the name Ernest as their alter-egos. Things get complicated however, when the ladies they love cannot be persuaded to love anyone by any other name but Ernest.

Brian Bedford-as-director had a tough job: how to put on an original version of a play his audience would know so well? Brian Bedford-as-actor had an even tougher job: how to play the gorgon Lady Bracknell and not come across as over-the-top, and keep the role unique in the minds of those who might have seen his late great colleague, William Hutt, perform the role in earlier productions?

In Oscar Wilde’s most beloved play, the witty, silly dialogue can easily afford moments of grandstanding, hamming it up and milking the laughter. It is a credit to Mr. Bedford-the-director that none of the cast members take that approach, and still are able to make the most of their characters.

In fact, the cast is so well balanced, so in tune with the dialogue, and so perfectly suited to their roles it is as if Oscar Wilde wrote the play just for them.

Take Robert Persichini, who plays Algernon’s butler Lane, which is a fairly small part. He is the first on stage, but immediately establishes his – and our - opinion of his master with a single, long-suffering look before even uttering a word, and the laughs just keep rolling from there.

Take Mr. Bedford-as-actor. In a small but dominating role, he nearly disappears as “Brian Bedford” and creates a completely believable haughty matriarch, one who has her own rules and will not be put upon, but one who is also surprisingly warm, and moved when the dénouement occurs. It will be a challenge for any actress – or actor - to top his portrayal after this.

Sarah Dodd channels some Maggie Smith as the prim governess, Miss Prism, and does it so well that the resemblance is both awesome and absolutely delightful. The stage-chemistry with her cohort, Stephen Ouimette (Rev. Canon Chausible) is palpable, and they are clearly enjoying their roles.

As the young women in the play, Cecily and Gwendolen, Andrea Runge and Sara Topham could not be better. Ms. Runge allows just a touch of pepper to show through Cecily’s sweetness, and one cannot miss a single thing if watching Ms. Topham’s expressive eyes – her comic-timing may even rival Mr. Bedford’s. Ms. Runge and Ms. Topham depict the most civilized cat-fight in theatre history.

As Algernon and Jack, Mike Shara and Ben Carlson are appropriately charming, roguish and irritating (Algernon) and elegant and slightly stuffy (Jack). Mr. Shara has perfected an ‘old boy’ upper-crust lisp, and pulls off being likeably aggravating with great ease. Mr. Shara and Mr. Carlson play extremely well off one another, and Mr. Carlson – last season’s very serious Danish prince – got one of the biggest laughs of the evening when, completely exasperated with the infuriating Algernon, he can merely squeak his retort in frustration.

There is one stand-out-star in this production, one that got applause every time the curtain opened on a new act – the set, designed by Desmond Heeley. A master of set magic, Mr. Heeley’s impressionistic design resembles a tinted black and white photograph. It becomes more lush in each act, as do the costumes, which by the third act are rich red, Kelly green, violet, pink and blue. It is a visual treat in and of itself, without ever overpowering the actors who play within it.

This is an intelligent-sounding play while being utterly foolish at its core, but it is directed intelligently, with a superb cast. The Importance of Being Earnest continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 30th, and is worth both the full price of admission, as well the as aching cheeks from laughing so much.

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