The Importance of Being Earnest

Wilde's classic social comedy. It's great.
Wadham College Gardens

July 21, 2006
Widely considered to be one of the funniest plays written in the English language, Oxford Shakespeare Company squeezes every last drop of wit out of 'The Importance of Being Earnest' in this performance at the atmospheric Wadham College Gardens. The setting is polite Victorian society where one needs to assume the correct persona in public regardless of who one is in private. The leading of a double life has comical consequences for two friends Jack and Algernon as they woo their sweethearts, Gwendolyn and Cecily. The ladies have been given the impression that their suitors share the same christian name, Ernest, a name both ladies find immensely fashionable. However, the formidable Lady Bracknell is loathe to let her daughter Gwendolyn marry her beau (aka Mr John Worthing played by the distinguished Henry Everett), a man with no parents, just a hand-bag! Lady Bracknell delivers the crux and funniest line of the play like a cannon, 'To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.' If a happy ending is to be reached then it is only as a result of the characters enduring the many twists and turns that accompany pretence. Whilst the sparkling exchanges fizz like 'eight bottles of champagne', the play's inspiration stems from a darker place, namely Wilde's painful experience of struggling with his own identity in a suppressed society.

The open-air theatre, a genre OSC continues to make its own, brings an added dimension to the text thanks to Chris Pickles' insightful direction. Staging the show 'in the round' is a device used imaginatively by this highly talented professional ensemble, as they stay in character both on and off stage. This leads to a delicious frisson as the audience encounters Cecily (Clare Fraenkel), as fragrant and uplifting as the roses she waters, on her way to lessons. A sincere Rev. Canon Chasuble (Nigel Lister) is seen deep in reverential thought from a distance long before his ardent admirer, Miss Prism, gets her claws into him. Before making a decadent entrance, a mesmerising Algernon (Christian Edwards) takes great delight in a cigarette. This quintessential Oxford Summer play is given two short intervals to allow the audience to enjoy refreshments in the beautiful surroundings.

The stylish use of cushions on a minimal set takes us cleverly from Algernon's Half-Moon Street flat in Mayfair, to Jack's Hertfordshire country house garden. Each residence has its own manservant or butler (Rod Matthew) whose cultivated voice makes the audience feel part of this High Society. So engaging are the characters, one almost expects a well-measured Gwendolyn (Kali Peacock) to pass along the bread and butter to the audience. An inescapable benchmark of any production of this play is the reading of Lady Bracknell, with distinguished portrayals being united by their diverse styles of delivery. John Brenner certainly gives us a Gorgon to be reckoned with! This innovative casting along with a passionate Miss Prism (Ian Bass) adds force to a much relished battle when Lady Bracknell squares up to Miss Prism over the matter of a lost baby. So, what will bring you up to Wadham Gardens, this reviewer wonders? 'Oh, pleasure, pleasure! What else should bring one anywhere?' for this hilarious, intelligent and elegant production is, 'As right as a trivet!'
What an excellent evening's entertainment! I have seen both plays on offer by the OSC now - and both are fabulous!

This is the best Earnest I have ever seen - a talented ensemble and director daring to treat it as a farce! It works delightfully well.

The cast are astonishing - from the arrogant beautiful Algernon (a glorious Christian Edwards), to the nerdy Jack (a well paced Henry Everett); it is the first time I have believed that these characters are actually arguing brothers.

Lady Bracknell is comically spot on (John Brenner sporting a great wig, a glorious performance), and her daughter (Kali Peacock) is following in her mum's footsteps. Great support from Rod Matthew as Lane, Nigel Lister, Clare Fraenkel, and Ian Bass.

If you go and see one open air production in Oxford this summer - make it their Earnest.
Well done OSC! I thought the whole production was absolutely glorious. True, the noisy audience meant it was at times hard to follow, but I doubt there will be large groups of students in every night, and surely that's just an issue that is faced when it comes to open air productions?

I also saw their Taming of the Shrew and roared with laughter; the cast are perfect and bounce over one another with such ease - just perfect comic timing. Surely this company is one Oxford should be proud of, and everyone should go to see...
Lady Bracknell's hair was radiant, but her persona lacked a certain 'Je ne sais quoi'. Jack and Algernon delivered plausible characters, but were not brilliant. The actor playing Rev. Canon Chasuble was the star of the show for me.

The proficient cast were a little difficult to see and hear from my (exceedingly cramped & uncomfy) seat just 3 rows back...although this was in part due to the noisy audience.

It is a shame after all their work to put together the production that I did not enjoy it more. Perhaps my expectations are too high having watched so many productions of this play in the past.

The glorious setting and the fantastic weather were the highlights of this production for me - I hope others who go to watch it have a more enjoyable experience.
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