Oscar Wilde’s perennially popular The Importance of Being Earnest brings to life two hours of muddled identities, questionably hasty engagements and hilarious satire on Victorian society. It is an easy play to do, relying on quick wit and often caricatured characters, but it is a difficult play to do well, and here most productions invariably slip up. This production’s professionalism was unwavering, from the impressive set to the complimentary cucumber sandwiches provided in the interval, but for all its visual and technical achievements it was occasionally let down by its acting.
Arnie Birss burst onto stage as Algernon, the insouciant and wickedly charming man-about-town who escapes the more arduous parts of London society through the practised art of ‘Bunburying’ – running to the aid of his oft-ailing made-up friend Bunbury. Birss’ energy and command of space never missed a beat, which left Oliver Gilford as his rather more contained friend Jack Worthing with a hard performance to match. Unfortunately, there were more than a few moments when Gilford’s portrayal fell flat, and he was left wrestling with Wilde’s verbose and fast-paced dialogue rather than mastering it.
Emma Taylor’s Gwendolen was wonderfully imperious and self-aware next to Laura Francis’ coquettish Cecily. The moments of synchronisation between these two characters, particularly the exchange in Cecily’s garden over tea and cakes, displayed perfectly the sisterly contempt and affection shared between them. There were moments when with more time some of the subtler comedy could have been pulled from the text, but for the most part Taylor and Francis’ performances carried the play.
Edie Deffebach had the unenviable task of bringing to life the indomitable Lady Bracknell. Whilst Deffebach’s physicality and vocal dexterity certainly captured her haughtiness and superiority, her performance came off quiet and reserved; it is admirable that she did not resort to the easy option of overly caricaturing Lady Bracknell, but it ended up feeling lacking next to the dynamism of the rest of the cast.
The supporting cast were almost entirely Blind Mirth veterans, so it came as no surprise that here the comedy truly excelled. Whereas the principals occasionally missed a beat in Wilde’s comedy, the supporting cast gave consistently humorous performances. Dr Chasuble (Matthew Knapp) and Miss Prism’s (Fay Morrice) interactions were particularly entertaining, both demonstrating a command of facial expression and comic timing precisely suited to Wilde’s dialogue. Michael Grieve’s deadpan and cynical Lane, Algernon’s butler, also offered a hilarious counterpoint to Arnie Birss’ exuberance in the opening scene.
Aesthetically, the production was near faultless. Set designer Caroline Christie missed no opportunity in bringing the overly pompous high-society settings to life, with a variety of well-executed backdrops and set paraphernalia providing a visually immersive complement to the action. Shari Sharpe’s costume design was equally exquisite; from Algernon’s progressively more fanciful outfits to Lady Bracknell’s demure finery, the costumes added both to the comedy and the professionalism of the production. The whimsical music and the decision to make the scene changes part of the action by dressing the stagehands as maids ensured slick scene changes, which with the amount of set could have easily become laborious.
The directors (Ed Fry and Cara Mahoney) gave themselves no easy task in being the first show back in the Byre and tackling such a beloved and comically nuanced play, and for the most part they and their cast fared admirably. We were promised flawless wit and suitable excess, and ignoring the odd missteps in delivery and mismatched energy, it succeeded.