I never go to the theatre on Sunday. It is usually my day of rest, to enjoy a glass of red wine with the husband or a walk along the beach. However, when a friend contacted me last week to tell me she had just emerged from ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ on “a cloud of happiness”, I immediately rushed to York’s historic Mayoral Mansions to see what all the fuss was about. And to say it was one of the most highly enjoyable experiences I have ever had in the theatre would be putting it mildly.
The site-specific nature of Theatre Mill’s production is a huge part of its charm and magic. You are met at the door by Algernon Moncrieff’s staff and friends – maids sweeping the steps, stylish party guests , smart butlers – and brought into the stunning Mansion House to the bar to mingle, where photos of the lead characters sit on the sideboard, the Pimms is flowing, and a slightly sozzled footman chatters amicably away. Attention to detail is clearly everything with this company.
Samuel Wood’s decision to set Wilde’s most famous comedy in the nineteen-twenties is inspired and in a programme note, he explains how the emergence of the female in society plays a major factor in this. It also helps to inject a wonderful zest and freedom into proceedings. Indeed, the women seem stronger in this production than many others I’ve seen; Stephanie De Whalley’s Gwendolen, here a sexy flapper girl who vibrates with longing and desire, is very funny indeed, and Isobel Hughes makes a pretty, eccentric, and occasionally moody Cecily Cardew.
They are not the only ones to put the men in their place, as Prue Gillett’s Lady Bracknell is certainly no fool, quietly controlling her family with satisfied smiles, steely gazes and sudden imperiousness. Gillett delivers many of the play’s famous lines (dare I mention ‘A handbag?!) in a naturally fresh manner and gives an impressive picture of a woman who has come to society from nowhere. As her nephew, Algernon, Adam Elms gives an exceptional performance, full of infectious energy and impeccable comic timing, and his sparring with Liam Tims’ solemn, nervy Jack sends sparks (and muffins!) flying. Completing the cast are David Chafer as a deadpan butler and Yorkshire vicar and Mandy Newby as a sour-faced governess thawed by love.
Additional pleasures in this Earnest include a full afternoon tea served by the maids at the interval, gorgeous lighting and costumes, and music throughout from The After Hours Rauchestra, who interact with the cast and provide a toe-tapping soundtrack to this most joyous of plays. The curtain call, a huge company Charleston, is also great fun.
Book. Just book. Now. The audience are thrust into York city centre quite overwhelmed. I just wish Oscar himself could see it.
Review by: Julia Sandford.