This gender-swapped version of Oscar Wilde’s classic claims to offer ‘larger than life pantomime performance’, but other than (slightly) in Gwendoline’s look and (irritatingly) in Algernon’s deliberately over-the-top playing only when supposedly adoring Cecily, the performance is not really that of a panto. Instead there is a mix of occasionally connected performances – Jack / Ernest has some decent thought processes visible, as does Cecily who has a well-observed manner and Lady Bracknell carries quiet dignity well, while Gwendoline pouts to fine effect.
Overall, though, this Importance of Being Earnest entertains due to two elements. One is the quality of the script – the wit of Wilde shines through, despite many of one lead’s lines being lost to dropped delivery at the end of sentences and a lot of rushing through speech rather than connecting to it (with some mis-spoken lines, showing that performers were not really connecting to meaning, let alone thought and emotion).
The second attractive element is direction that, along with men playing female roles and vice versa, brings in two servants – Lane and Merriman – to orchestrate acts and includes references to the attempts of the director to keep costs down via such all-too-often-utilised solutions as using a modern day setting and casting ‘volunteers’. The modern set is simple: two small chairs, a table and a mirror, the latter put to written use to start with, but then ignored, never part of action, nor characterisation. A spotlight to signify ’interrogation’ left Lady Bracknell out of one of her major scenes, and was a point at which a concept worked poorly, and towards the end there was some blocked view when all performers were on the stage, but there are also a lot of effective directorial ideas. Mobile phones featured to humorous – and apt – affect, but sometimes acted as a crutch to lessen the need for performers to be focused and part of a scene even when not speaking. Gwendoline and Cecily, though, use these props very well.
Lane and Merriman deal with their clever exposition and audience interaction with accomplished aplomb, and an audience member gave a credible comic performance as Miss Prism. Again, gender swapping provided many of the laughs, though throughout this was more for men playing women than the other way round, and for such visible gags as height differences.
Some delights for those who know the play are lost to cuts, but the condensed script flows very well, with only an occasional line referring to something that has been cut. This is a student group and Wilde’s comedy does require better connection and technique to reach its heights, but the company, under a director usually making sound – and sometimes inspired – choices, delivers a fun production that thoroughly amused most of its audience.
10-25 August, 14:00 (15:00) @ C too