This is the most interesting production of The Importance of Being Earnest I have ever seen, and that includes David Suchet in drag as Lady Bracknell.
The Octagon company is performing in various venues around Bolton while the theatre is being refurbished, and this show is in the Albert Hall, part of the Town Hall building, a huge Victorian edifice built in neo-classical style in 1873 just as Bolton was coming into its manufacturing glory. A huge, high-ceilinged room with a magnificent organ at one end, it nearly burned down in 1981 and was thoroughly restored and reopened in 1985. Today it looks magnificent. It does have a bit of an echo though, as sounds come directly at you and also bounce off the walls, reaching your ear at slightly different intervals. With music this acts like a sustain pedal, but it makes speech hard to hear until you get used to it.
That apart, the hall is stylistically a perfect venue for this Victorian comedy which was written 20 years after it opened, and designer David Woodhead and director Suba Das have set the play in a Victorian photographer’s studio which occupies the whole stage, including the magnificent organ. There’s a lot of stage to cover it’s at least 15 metres wide. The cast, particularly Jack Hardwick as Algernon, who became a photographer for this production, take advantage, sweeping around it in great style.
Everything about the show is done in great style, from the frocks – I particularly envied Algernon’s green tweed suit and yellow waistcoat – to the settings, the props, the movement and indeed the storytelling. Das has taken a number of liberties with the text which are funny, surprising and extremely watchable, but I wish he had taken more.
The play moves along at a cracking pace, partly because the actors have to move so fast to cover the vast stage, but the pace falters whenever an exchange of Wildean aphorisms takes place. Some of them seem quite out of place now (“The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to someone else, if she is plain”) while others provoke no reaction. A bit of judicious cutting is in order.
Dean Fagan is a fine serious foil to Hardwick’s flippant Algernon, Elizabeth Twells gives Gwendolen the balls of a Victorian woman explorer to great effect, and Melissa Lowe’s Cecily would have done well at St Trinian’s. Vicky Entwistle’s Miss Prism has a coquettish determination to capture David Cardy’s Dr Chasuble. Sarah Ball plays Lady Bracknell with the required degree of matriarchal hauteur, and gets “A handbag?” absolutely right. Dan Sheader plays the butlers in various stages of undress, and has the thankless task of the curtain speech asking the audience to contribute their foldable spare change to the Octagon’s development fund on their way out – and it works.
On press night the 670-seater hall was full, and the show elicited a great reception, with cheering and whistling. Not bad for a play written in 1895. It’s also a measure of its success that nobody complained about the duration of the first act (more than an hour and a half), and the second only 35 minutes. I think that needs fixing. As for the acoustics, I stopped noticing after about half an hour.
The Importance of Being Earnest is on until June 15, 2019. For more information and tickets, click here.