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Review The Importance of Being Earnest, Tread the Boards at The Attic Theatre, until 31st July

DIRECTOR John-Robert Partridge achieves his purpose in providing a delightful summery production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Those who don’t know the play will be delighted by its fun and energy. Those who know it back to front will find all kinds of details and nuances which make the production fresh for them.

Robert Moore as Jack and Pete Meredith as Algernon. Photo: Harry Lomax
Robert Moore as Jack and Pete Meredith as Algernon. Photo: Harry Lomax

It is set in the roaring twenties with upbeat music, bits of dance and flappers, completely appropriate for the days after the covid closures. We have a surprise right at the beginning with Pete Meredith’s campest Algernon imaginable contrasting splendidly with an apparently more restrained Jack, although Robert Moore’s expressive face with its stylish specs gives some delightful reactions to what is going on around him. There’s plenty of swift slapstick, too, as Jack and Algy cavort around the stage in a hilarious cigarette case chase at the beginning of the play. There’s some delightful business with the sherry tray involving a splendid Lane in Edward Manning and Algy.

The set changes are cleverly choreographed so that there isn’t a break in the action and the audience is party to the transitions. Lucy Callender’s flexible and attractive set literally opens into the garden replete with a rather lengthy birdsong track and the characters introduce themselves even before they speak, Dawn Bush’s Miss Prism giving us an unexpected bit of flapper dance. I have not seen Miss Prism played like this before. Instead of being the usual rather dour schoolmistress this Miss Prism has a sense of humour and a good deal of flirtatiousness with Dr Chasuble – Edward Manning in a different role and with an even better performance. As the play progresses, especially with the bitchy duo of Cecily (Matilda Bott) revelling in the power that control of the sugar bowl gives her and Gwendolyn (Ali Hellings), we come to realise that the only viable relationship is between Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble who show each other some real affection rather than the affectation of the other four so-called lovers.

John-Robert is as unmerry a Merryman as you could wish for, laying the table for tea with great precision. Algy’s appetite is brought out all through the play, physically in his eating what is left over of the afternoon tea and he and Jack have a splendid silent movie sequence ending in them dancing together.

But I’ve not mentioned someone yet: someone important. It’s Lady Bracknell who after Edith Evans has one of the most unenviable lines in the play to deliver – ‘A handbag?’ but Lesley Wilcox’s perfectly paced performance as Lady Bracknell was up to the job. Her scene cross- questioning Jack was wonderfully done - never over-acted and believable as a character rather than overdone as a caricature.

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