Oscar Wilde's 1895 dramatic comedy deals with political intrigue, blackmail and marriage. It raises questions about public and private honour, and whether a noble future and probable great contribution to society should be sacrificed for past mistakes. It explores the nature of love insofar as asking whether we should really expect, or even want, perfection in others. Is it fair to hold someone up as our ideal, and expect them to live up to that image?
We come in to the mediaeval, oak-beamed Unicorn Theatre to the sounds of The Mikado and the sight of a slide show illustrating the period – a very nice touch. A lot of care (not easy for an amateur company of limited resources) has gone into getting costumes and set in period. Kudos to Mike Davies, Deirdre Jones and the company.
This is a play of two parts: the first scene at the Chilterns’ town house, before the dramatic elements kick in, has a lot of that Wildean thing where effete aristocrats languidly spew out epigrams. This makes the play static and slow to get moving, and the cast here seems a little uncomfortable. The bons mots are funny and clever, of course, though as Wilde’s epigrammatic technique is largely to turn out paradoxes by the bucketful, the effect can be quite numbing. So credit especially to David Fardon’s Lord Goring for his efforts to make them sound like actual, if heightened, conversation.
The bulk of the piece, however, contains dramatic twists and turns that involve misunderstandings and the shaking-up of mistaken perceptions about the characters, and here director Deirdre Jones picks up the pace and her cast gradually warm to their task. Their post-first-night task will be to inject a little more energy and movement into these early exchanges.
The players cope well, faced with acting these upper-crust beings with their easy confidence and in some cases hauteur, based on the possession of old money and social position. David Fardon, in the long and difficult role of Lord Goring, looking and sounding every inch the Victorian gentleman, a tantalising mix of silly ass and astute observer, comes on really strong after a slightly sticky start. Vern Dunkley’s Sir Robert Chiltern, while attractively dignified and latterly anguished, just misses the thrust and ambition consonant with being ‘one of the most promising young politicians in England.’ I liked the smooth movement of Lilly Dunkley’s Mrs Cheveley, though I would have liked a more nuanced wickedness from her, especially in the blackmailing scene and later in her tête-a-tête with Lord Goring. Lady Chiltern, a woman of high-mindedness who late in the day gains human understanding, is delicately and in the end poignantly played by Janie Eyre-Brook.
Sarah Fell’s Miss Mabel is good as a frivolous, even skittish, ‘modern’ woman, but as Lord Caversham, father of Lord Goring, Mike Davies is a hand-wringer when much more abrasiveness is required. In a small part, Julie Kedward shines as a lively Lady Markby.
A tough play to bring off for non-pros, but Breakaleg has done itself proud, and not least in the first-rate programme which is of souvenir quality.