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The Importance of Being Earnest, Library Theatre

Joan Davies says a fond farewell – for now – to the Library Theatre

Published on June 14th 2010.

The Importance of Being Earnest, Library Theatre

In returning to Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ for the closing piece in its current home the award-winning Library Theatre Company was always going to delight its audience .

Thankfully the Library Theatre Company will survive. We are promised three productions per year at the Quays, the more intimate of the main spaces at The Lowry in Salford, as well as a number of productions in non-theatre city centre spaces.

Wilde’s sharp wit and his affinity with secret lives make ‘Earnest’ a highly entertaining play which can still please and surprise a modern audience. As usual Chris Honer’s production of a familiar classic highlights modern relevance while treating the original with respect.

The casting, a mix of Library Theatre favourites with some new exciting new faces, leads to high audience expectations which are largely met in a lively production packing three acts of sharp-paced delivery and two roomy intervals into a well-designed and complete evening’s entertainment. It’s a neat nod to history too as this was the opening play of the Library Theatre’s run in this Central Library location.

Wilde’s Victorian drama satirises the conventions of society and in particular the role of marriage in preserving position and wealth. At the heart of the story are secret lives: the actual secret hidden lives of two young men, who use invented characters to forgo duty and pursue pleasure, and the imaginary secret lives of two young women, who take their pleasures vicariously, until the real thing comes along. That Wilde was living two lives, and that one of these would end in a prison sentence, is now common knowledge.

The two young men are the clearly dissolute Algernon and his friend Jack, or rather Jack’s alter ego, the similarly dissolute and entirely fictitious Earnest. Earnest gives Jack an excuse to come up to town for fun, while Algernon’s invented relative, Bunburry, allows Algernon to escape to the county and avoid the boredom of social obligation. Jack is interested in Gwendoline, Algernon’s cousin, who knows Jack only as Earnest. Algernon is intrigued by Jack’s ward Cecily, whom he has never met. Gwendoline is reluctantly governed by her mother, the powerful Lady Bracknell, while Cecily is simply governed by her imagination. A governess and a vicar are added to the mix, and they too have pleasure to pursue.

In the role of the formidable Lady Bracknell, Honer chose to cast Russell Dixon, a long-time Library favourite who last appeared here as a superb apoplectic Pozzo in ‘Waiting for Godot’. Cross-gender casting for this role is not uncommon. Dixon successfully carries the weight of appreciative expectation with superb timing and delivery, measured, commanding and occasionally powered by quietness, He moves with majesty and precision and has the audience hanging on every carefully enunciated syllable.

But despite excellent lines and superb delivery neither Lady B nor Russell Dixon is allowed to dominate. This production isn’t about Victorian repression; it’s about strong life forces subverting such repression to satisfy their desires through falsehood, imagination and, finally, by truth and reality in the form of love. The cast portray the eventual lovers with a sexual charge not always seen in this play, driving the pace and the story to its eventual resolution.

With a mix of youth and experience on stage timing takes a little while to settle, but soon the cast are delivering Wilde’s wit with verve. Newcomer Alex Felton as the douche Algernon, a sort-of blonde Victorian Russell Brand, lasciviously drapes his elegantly clad long limbs around the elegant furniture: a convincingly decadent youth. In contrast Simon Harrison brings an openness and warmth of Earnest/Jack, gaining audience empathy despite his schemes and lies.

The scenes between newcomers Florence Hall as Cecily and Wigan-born Natalie Grady as Gwendoline point up the contrast in their characters. Both are determined young women. Hall gives Cecily an acute awareness of the power of her charm while Grady’s portrayal of the bossier side of Gwendoline demonstrates the Wildean observation that ‘All women become like their mothers’.

The middle-aged lovers have their moments too. Malcolm James and Olwen May as mild-mannered vicar Canon Chasuble and governess Miss Prism give entrancing performances suggesting that their union will bring much more than reliable companionship in later life.

Finally Leigh Symonds, seen earlier this year in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, gives an entertaining performance as two very different servants.

Thankfully the Library Theatre Company will survive. We are promised three productions per year at the Quays, the more intimate of the main spaces at The Lowry in Salford, as well as a number of productions in non-theatre city centre spaces. Then in four years time the company move into a refurbished Theatre Royal, returning the Peter Street building to its original use and allowing the company much improved facilities.

The company has a superb record of presenting a mix of modern classics and new writing, introducing us to major players of the later twentieth century such as Mamet and Sondheim, and revisiting and revitalising some of our best known playwrights. It’s exciting to speculate about what might be achieved in the near future.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde is presented by the Library Theatre Company at Central Library, St Peter’s Square until Saturday 3 July 2010

Box office: 0161 236 7110

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