The Importance of being Earnest has been revived countless times since its premiere in 1885 – a clear testament to the enduring love audiences and companies alike have for the fluffy farce. That Artefact Theatre Co has restaged Earnest twice in less than a year is a clear indication that audiences are enjoying this particular version (Dir. Matthew Cox, Co-Producers Sarah Oliver and Sarah Cuthbert). With only the part of Lady Bracknell needing to be recast due to scheduling clashes, the current run in the Loft at Chapel off Chapel is a well-oiled machine. Given the play – like Seinfeld – centres on fools doing essentially nothing, it would be easy and even appropriate to deliver lines with arch Noël Coward-ness or simpering simpleness. Instead, directing and acting choices have skilfully navigated the witticisms and period setting, resulting in a vibrant, physical and thoroughly engaging production.
The impish and indolent Algernon Moncrieff (Mark Yeates) appears to be somewhat the love child of David Spade and Are You Being Served’s Mr Humphries. Much like a Hobbit, Algy’s life revolves around food, and his pursuit of his precious: in this case, evading boring social engagements. Confident and amusing from the start, Yeates’ cheekiness and spryness warm up further as the show progresses and the farce deepens.
Straight man to Algy’s rake, Rosco Dwyer gives us a dapper Jack with not unimpressive facial hair, and a frequently concerned brow. Enamoured with Algy’s cousin Gwendolen (Olivia Solomons) and guardian of “little” Cecily (Cazz Baines), Jack is by turns foolishly love-struck and indignantly mature. Dwyer downplays his height advantage, launching himself into both embraces and standoffs with elegance and alacrity. An absolute highlight is Act II’s climactic food fight, with Yeates and Dwyer smearing each other with tea cake and butter like warring toddlers.
Throughout, the use
of slapstick comedy is well-timed in every sense of the word, and often
hilarious in its own right. Special note should also be made of Thomas Jones’ long-suffering
manservant characters, Lane and Merriman. With rubbery legs for days and the
eyebrows of an Insta-model, Jones is seemingly part Cosentino, part Cosmo Kramer.
Various slight-of-hand tricks reinforce and enhance the farcical nature of the
play, and Jones conveys unspoken commentary through the cock of an eyebrow or
the flutter of a hand.
The sheer physicality of the movement choices in this production – which is essentially set in a lounge room and a small garden area – elevate it out of the small space and minimal setting entirely: every available inch of the stage is used, including backstage areas. Initially confronting in their whiteness, the mildly 3D flats used as backdrops recede quickly in favour of the playful carry-on in front of them (which is no slight against Set Designer Mark Koveliov – rather a compliment for dealing with the restrictions of the theatre and still managing to visually support the play’s tone). They also provide the proscenium from which Lady Bracknell (Ryan A. Murphy) launches herself at inopportune moments, like a well-upholstered QEII.
Indeed, the company is justifiably proud of their costume design and millinery (by the award-winning Jacqui Day, and up-and-comer Zoe Thompson respectively, with additional assistance from Blanche Lough and Shonaid Uccellini). Both aspects are well executed, constructing a sense of the period and contributing to character development whilst also being aesthetically pleasing, and allowing for the physical demands of the performance. In particular, Act II’s use of largely cream and blue attire is perhaps a pastorale foreshadowing that both central couples will overcome their predicaments and live happily ever after. Were Algy a 21st century gentleman, his socks and cravats would probably have their own social media manager.
Large hats can sometimes prove a challenge for ensuring actors remain well lit. There were no such problems here though, with Murphy’s imposing Lady Bracknell visible down to the last artificial eyelash of her glare. Somewhere between Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull and a Matt Lucas character, Algy’s dear Aunt Augusta would probably give Pride and Prejudice’s Lady Catherine de Burgh a run for her money on meddling in the marriages of younger family members. Productions of The Importance of Being Earnest can often be defined by the delivery of Lady Bracknell’s response when she discovers Jack’s beginnings in the leathergoods industry, so-to-speak. Those familiar with Little Britain might be concerned that Jack’s tale will prove something of an emetic to Lady Bracknell. In testament to Murphy’s characterisation though, and the overall artistic choices throughout, this production instead hangs on well-rehearsed use of silence, gesture and the aforementioned physicality, rather than just a “handbag”. Suspicious, pouting and squinting, when she’s not holding others hostage with ornamental umbrellas, the spatially formidable Bracknell at one point uses the more diminutive Algernon as a physical barrier, to understandable comical visual effect.
Equally, our other female leads Gwendolen (Solomons) and Cecily (Bainbridge) are no mere handbags either. Solomons plays Gwen with bosom-heaving assertiveness, pretty in her picture hat, but absolutely determined that nothing shall stand between her and Jack/Earnest’s union. Bainbridge’s Cecily, although despising German, Geology and many other subjects besides, suffers no fools herself. Solomons and Bainbridge are well matched, handling the transitions from optimism about potential friendship, teeth-baring rivalry, and finally the hoped-for ‘sisterhood’. Best of all, as they uncover the Bunburying duplicity of their intended partners, they become two-thirds of a huffing, hissing Cerberus, flouncing off stage arm-in-arm to leave the men to sort themselves out.
Further light entertainment is present in the personages of Miss Prism (Suzanne Sandow) and the Rev. Dr. Chausible (Frank Handrum). Prism is appropriately scatty and sincere, breathless with desire for the be-kilted Chausible. In keeping with her professional experience in storytelling, Sandow’s exposition of how a baby ended up in a bag on the Brighton line is both genuine and hillarious. Genial Handrum’s unwavering Scots’ brogue leaves us hanging on his every word, and were it not for a well-placed sporran, a potential wardrobe malfunction would have created even more interest. Although on stage for less time, Sandow and Handrum (and for that matter Jones) are very much vital parts of a cohesive ensemble.
In the confines of the Loft, not a huge amount can be done with lighting, sound and sets. Good use was made of backlighting for Algy’s slap-dash piano playing though, and the other major piece of lighting design (Hugh Stephens) was an appropriately dramatic focus on the ensemble as a frantic search through the Peers of the Realm reveals Jack’s birth name at the end of Act III. Strains of Noël Coward (anachronistically, but we get the idea) set the tone between Acts, and welcome the audience to suspend disbelief from the start.
Rarely earnest, and better yet, perfectly absurd, the Artefact Theatre Co’s 2019 production of The Importance of Being Earnest is a solid delight: a tick in every (snuff) box.