Watermill Theatre - The Importance of Being Earnest
23rd May to 29th June 2019
Review from Newbury Theatre.
A director’s challenge, with a new production of a well-known play, is to give it a new twist. Especially difficult when there is a film version which many people think of as the definitive version. But there’s really no point in comparing a modern production with a 1952 film. And how many different ways can there be of saying “a handbag”?
Director Kate Budgen and designer Amy Jane Cook’s twist is (a) to mix the elaborate Victorian costumes with modern props – sounds bizarre but gets some laughs – and (b) to enhance the text through movement, gesture and glance, which works extremely well.
The simple set is scattered with the detritus of a rowdy night out including streamers, a traffic cone and a megaphone. This is Algernon’s London flat, and Lane – the butler – enters and starts tidying. Lane (Morgan Philpott), stiff and inscrutable, is a man of few words but is one of the delights of this production, appearing magically at exactly the right time to supply the needs of the toffs.
Benedict Salter is suitably upper class as Jack but Peter Bray seems a bit uncomfortable as Algernon and hasn’t yet settled into the persona. Connie Walker is a delightful Lady Bracknell, eager to get the right answers from Jack, her eyes lighting up with glee on learning his wealth, and accepting tea in a plastic cup as perfectly normal.
Claudia Jolly is a rather severe Gwendolen, contrasting nicely with Charlotte Beaumont’s bubbly fast-talking Cecily as their relationship deteriorates splendidly during afternoon tea. As Miss Prism, Wendy Nottingham shakes with barely suppressed desire for the upright Dr Chasuble (Jim Creighton) – good luck with that: “I am a celibate, madam”.
What makes this production stand out is the non-scripted parts: the choreography (Lucy Cullingford) and the interaction between the characters. From the start with Algernon and Jack running around and on the chaise longue; the dances with the cigarette case and the muffins; the smooth interactions with Lane/Merriman – this is a lively production adding extra comedy to the comedy of Wilde’s wit.
There have been many productions of The Importance of Being Earnest in this area over the last few years, including one at the Watermill in 2001, but this production brings an interesting and fresh view of the much-loved play.
Review from the British Theatre Guide.
Oscar Wilde’s witty play The importance of Being Earnest is given a refreshing new and modern staging at the Watermill that fizzes with comic invention and humour.
Kate Budgen directs with panache and originality and the strong cast are a joy to watch in this fast paced production with impressive movement work by Lucy Cullingford.
The set designed by Amy Jane Cook is minimalistic, painted in non-descript beige with many hidden doors that are used to great effect and the stage is dominated by a huge William Morris wallpaper print at the back.
Gone was the opulence of a Victorian drawing room which gave the actors the opportunity to explore the vibrant text with fluidity and imagination.
Morgan Philpot is simply splendid as the dead pan butler who with split second timing manages to provide all the props and change the scenes with apparent consummate ease. A tour de force performance.
Benedict Salter is striking as the playboy Jack Worthing who lives a double life with his house in London and one in the country where he goes to look after his non-existent brother Ernest and his ward Cecily, a delightfully feisty performance by Charlotte Beaumont.
Peter Bray perfectly captures the naivety and energy of Algernon who has invented ‘bunburying’ to escape from social engagements.
The women, in contrast to the men, are powerful in Wilde’s play. Claudia Jolly’s Gwendolen is strong minded and pretentious and in love with Jack.
Her meeting with Cecily when they become friends then vehemently fall out is hilarious.
Connie Walker brings a new interpretation to the role of Lady Bracknell, the arrogant, ruthless social climber and deals with perhaps the most quoted line “a handbag,” when it is discovered that Jack was found in one at the lost property office at Victoria Station, perfectly.
Wendy Nottingham plays the strict incorruptible Miss Prism who has a dark secret that is revealed towards the end. Her prim and proper ways begins to melt when she meets Dr Chasuble (Jim Creighton) and their walk in the garden leads to love.
Beautifully costumed this highly entertaining play about manners and Victorian society shines. Highly recommended.
Review from the Newbury Weekly News.
The Importance of Being Earnest, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until Saturday, June 29
For a couple of hours, you can completely forget the current political turmoil and start to laugh again by buying tickets for this production of Oscar Wilde's enduring and endearing The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Kate Budgen.
Played against a large panel of William Morris’s Golden Lily pattern, the only furniture is a chaise longue and there has obviously been one hell of a party the night before. Never mind, for that excellent butler Lane (Morgan Philpott) appears before the start of the play to put things right, collecting streamers, bottles, glasses and, bizarrely, a traffic cone.
A click from Lane and the play bursts into life and we meet wealthy young Algernon Moncrieff (Peter Bray). He is visited by Jack (Benedict Salter), a country landowner who has invented a brother, Ernest, to account for his visits to town, while Algy has invented the invalid Bunbury to get him out of unwanted invitation.
When Algy's aunt Lady Bracknell (Connie Walker) comes to visit, she brings her daughter Gwendolen (Claudia Jolly), with whom Jack is in love. Unfortunately, Gwendolen will not marry anyone unless they are called Ernest. What with this to overcome, as well as Lady Bracknell not approving of Jack being found as a baby in a handbag on Victoria Station, the chances of a happy ending look grim.
The action moves to the country, where muffin-munching Algy, pretending to be the imaginary Ernest, has fallen in love with Jack's ward, the artless, feisty Camilla (Charlotte Beaumont). When Jack arrives saying that his brother Ernest is dead, problems mount and it is not until Miss Prism (Wendy Nottingham), Camilla's governess and the placer of the handbag, admits what she did, that there is a chance of happiness for all, including Miss Prism who is in love with the local vicar, Dr Chasuble (Jim Creighton).
The audience reaction as the well-known phrases were spoken showed their enjoyment and the mind-bogglingly slick moves as Lane whisked aside props, replaced them, lit cigarettes and appeared and disappeared were impressive, fantastic and enjoyable.
First performed in 1895, when its run suffered because of Wilde's notoriety, The Importance of Being Earnest comes up bright and shining in the hands of this superb cast, giving the show a charm and humour that made every single moment a delight.
What a writer Wilde was. What a pleasant evening this was.
There are reviews from The Spy in the Stalls ("fresh and inventive new production" - ★★★★), Broadway World ("laugh-a-minute funny" - ★★★★), Henley Standard ("wonderful performances from a seasoned and very able cast under superb and innovative direction... quirky and extremely funny production"), Plays to See ("an imaginative approach to the play, very fine ensemble work from the actors" - ★★★★), Muddy Stilettos ("a quality cast, who fire their lines out without missing a beat and they brought two hours of non-stop laughter to The Watermill"), The Stage ("spirited performances and a production of comic flair combine to create a summer treat"), Oxford Times ("a thoroughly entertaining production" - ★★★★).