Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Bagging a romance in earnest

Earnest quartet

Algernon (left, Lee Davies) and John (Rod Blissett) listen in anxiously as Cecily (left, Natalie Ashcroft) and Gwendolen (Phebe Jackson) discuss their fate

The Importance of Being Earnest

The Grange Players

Grange Playhouse, Walsall


OSCAR Wilde’s best-loved comedy is also his most enduring, and despite being 120 years old is still as witty and fresh as when it first appeared on Valentine’s Day in 1895.

It is full of wit with a familiar story and a host of memorable quotes, which audiences greet with laughter and smiles as old friends. Its wicked satire was aimed at the hypocrisy, superficial striving for status and triviality which afflicted Victorian society, but its charm, in part, lies with the fact that snobbery is universal; we all know someone whose pretentiousness is legendary.

To work more than a century on though, it is a play that needs to be done in period dress to set the scene and, more importantly to set it within its own time and Rosemary Manjunath has done a fine job in decking out the cast in the latest fashions, for 1895 that is.

So with such a well-loved and well known play, the second best known and quoted after Hamlet according to some observers, the interest these days is not so much on what as on how it is performed and in Lee Davis as Algernon and Rod Bissett as John Worthing, the two would be Ernests, Grange has found a nicely balanced double act.

Bissett’s Worthing is the more serious, less hethe rectordonistic of the two while Lee’s Algernon is flippant and self-indulgent, a typical, wealthy end of the 19th century, society bachelor living comfortably off family money.

Their battle for muffins in the garden scene when Algie arrives at Worthing’s country pile is a comic gem, as is the chase around Algie’s flat to retrieve the fateful cigarette case which sets the ball rolling.

After an inauspicious start you warm to the pair as they bumble through life like a 19th century Just William and Ginger, each leading a double life to relieve them of social responsibilities and, one must be honest, give them a certain unaccountable rakish freedom.

A sermon for every occasion all at the drop of a cassock from the Rev Canon Chasuble, DD, played by Brian Lycett

Phebe Jackson gives a fine performance as Gwendolen, who always travels with her diary as “one should always have something sensational to read in the train".

She gives us an independent, free spirit of a young woman, at least when her mother, the harridan Lady Bracknell is not around. Enter the stern matriarch and Gwendolen visibly shrinks into an obedient shell.

Director Martin Groves has gone for the modern trend for a male Lady Bracknell - a production at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin 10 years ago had an all-male cast – with David Stone taking on the role in a very po-faced manner, speaking in measured, emotionless sentences broken up into well enunciated phrases to make her ladyship a most unlikeable character each time she enters a room like a cruising dreadnought.

Michael Fitzgerald, who played her ladyship at the Bristol Old Vic in 2005, was quoted in The Guardian as saying: “A man can play Lady Bracknell because she is sexless. Many great actresses have played Lady Bracknell with a notion that she has a sense of humour, which is completely wrong, or that she is fond of her nephew, Algie. I don't think that woman is fond of anything. She's simply right and everybody else, therefore, is wrong.”

Against all these headstrong characters we have sweet, innocent(ish) Cecily, 18 and Worthing’s ward, played by Natalie Ashcroft. She is, on the face of it, a naive country girl, unaccustomed to the ways of London society, except that her childlike exterior hides a quite determined character who is more than a match for anyone - and one who was engaged to Algie/Ernest long before he knew it.

More could perhaps have been made of the tea and cake battle between Ernest’s warring two fiancées, Gwendolen and Cecily, in the Manor House garden perhaps but that was made up for by the pass the plate of muffins routine of John/Jack/Ernest and Algernon/Ernest which followed.

Hovering around we had Miss Prism, played by Gwen Evans, the quiet, prim and proper Governess to Cecily, who had carried a terrible secret for 28 years, who is attracted to the Rev. Canon Chasuble, D.D, the local rector, played with suitable unworldly vagueness by Brian Lycett, who has a sermon – the same one it appears – for every occasion. He is also attracted to her which sows the seeds for a happy ecclesiastical ending.

The cast is completed with Sam Allan as Lane, Algie’s butler, and Merriman, played by Christopher Waters, the butler at Worthing’s Manor House along with Luke Groves as the Footman.

Martin Groves not only directed by also designed the set which was functional as Algie’s flat, with splendid leather Chesterfields, nicely bucolic as the Manor House Garden and ended splendidly as the Manor House drawing room.

Full marks to the stage crew, incidentally, who managed the change to house from garden in remarkably quick time for a complete resetting of the stage between acts two and three.

This is the most trivial of Wilde’s plays and perhaps because of that is his most effective, full of charm, humour and barbed wit. Its premiere saw Wilde at the height of his fame and power but it was notable for a less theatrical but much more dramatic reason.

The Marquess of Queensbury, father of Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas, planned to throw rotten veg at Wilde as he took a bow but was denied entry. It was the start of the end for Wilde with first his libel battle with the Marquess then his subsequent jailing for gross indecency. Wilde died in 1900 and his works would never be performed again in his lifetime.

More than a century on the law, and more importantly attitudes have changed and Wilde’s star is shining brightly again, lighting up Grange Playhouse to 25-07-15.

Roger Clarke


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