The importance of being earnestly directed

One of the rare antidotes on offer in pantomime season, The Importance of Being Earnest at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, is a good case study of how a good director can make a difference.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre showed The Importance of Being Earnest over Christmas, and it’s good. To be honest, I could end the review right here. Oscar Wilde’s most famous play is, in my opinion, one of the easiest plays out there to produce. See this advertised by any semi-competent theatre company and you can be pretty confident of a good production.

So as we all know this play let’s get straight to- … What do you mean “I don’t know The Importance of Being Earnest“? Honestly, some people. Right, Act I, Algernon Moncrieff meets his friend Earnest Worthing in London, and drags out of him a confession that his real name is in fact Jack, and only goes by the identity of Earnest in the city. His sweetheart Gwendolynn, however, clearly states she only loves him because he is name’s Earnest, whilst her mother, Lady Bracknell, further discovers Jack was found as a baby in a handbag and refuses permission in marriage. Act II, Algernon, having discovered Jack has an attractive ward named Cecily, who believes Earnest is Jack’s naughty brother, pops over to Jack’s country home pretending to be Earnest and they fall in love. Gwendolynn then meets Cecily, and they of course mistakenly conclude they are both in love with the same Earnest. Cue the 19th century’s most famous bitch-fest. And so on. Are we up to date now?

Anyway, like Gogol’s The Government Inspector, Oscar Wilde had the good fortune to pick a topic for humour that hasn’t dated in the last 117 years. And, what’s more, this is a very easy play to direct. If your idea of directing a play is to get everyone to learn lines, and to move them on and off-stage when the script says so, you will normally produce something dull and wooden, but this play you’ll probably get away with it. The strength lies entirely in the script and the dialogue alone ought to give you a good performance. You can’t really go wrong. (Well, you can go wrong – there’s always a way to do a play badly. I suggest casting a 51-year-old as Cecily ought to do the trick.)

So, this makes an interesting test: does this fully-professional production do things any better that a typical (competent) amdram performance? Serious question. I will come back to this another day, but I don’t subscribe to the conventional mindset that a cast who went to RADA automatically does a better play than a cast of amateurs. I don’t have any problems with the acting at the Stephen Joseph Theatre as such; it was casted extremely well without a weak link. A good job done by casting director Sarah Hughes here, with a cast almost entirely of Scarborough newcomers, apart from veteran Becky Hindley as Lady Bracknell. Instead of the conventional portrayal of Berkshire’s most famous aristocrat, she play the part more like a wicked stepmother (a result of the decision to share the actress with the actual wicked stepmother in Cinderella, the other Christmas production), but this works surprisingly well. But with Jack, Algernon, Gwendolynn and Cecily being close to the four most acted characters on stage, amateurs and professionals alike have had plenty of opportunities to see how to do the part well. Could the right cast of amateurs have done the same job? Maybe, maybe not.

No, the real strength in this production is Chris Monks’ directing. And it’s not any ingenious way of revolutionising the play, but instead lots of little things that add up. The effort to make Jack and Algernon a complete contrast, costumes alone displaying Jack’s seriousness and Algernon’s flippancy. The use of every opportunity in the script to have actions on stage and not just a line recital. Giving Lane and Merriman some real character and individuality, and not just a pair of generic butlers. The cutscene between Acts 2 and 3 where a furious Lady Bracknell arrives at the station. All this and more makes what could have been a static play into a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

And, equally importantly is what we don’t have: expensive extras. All too often in classic plays, the first two question the producer will ask is 1) which film/soap/pop stars can we get in the cast, and 2) How much money will this enable us to get out the punters. Or you could splash out on three lavish sets and two equally lavish set changes. Or you could stick it in the largest most expensive theatre because you can. But all of these have to be paid for in higher ticket prices, and do they make the play any better? Some plays, yes, but not this one. Give me a cheap no-frills production any day.

Only one possible complaint: Earnest‘s isn’t exactly an adventurous play, neither was last year’s Blithe Spirit. In that respect, it’s a step down from A Christmas Carol and The Snow Queen, which weren’t perfect but did take the unusual step of mixing youth actors with professionals. (I suspect that format was a casualty of the cuts.) But with the Stephen Joseph Theatre spending the rest of the year taking risks and doing the best Ayckbourn productions you’re likely to find, maybe they’re allowed an easy ride once a year. And few refuges from pantomime season of offer, this is as good an escape as any.

The Importance of Being Earnest continues until January 7 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.