Saturday night’s final sold-out performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Ed Fry and Cara Mahoney, can only be defined as outstanding. Despite the play being over 100 years old, it has retained the ability to split sides and leave a lasting impression. The play centres on identity and the duplicitous nature of man in the most humorous way possible – Jack (Olli Gilford) leads a double life as libertine Ernest in the city and serious Jack in the country, who sets an example to his young ward Cecily (Laura Francis). Similarly, his friend Algernon (Arnie Birss) admits to pretending to have an invalid friend in the country named ‘Bunbury’ who he can visit whenever he wishes to avoid social obligations. Desiring to marry Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen (Emma Taylor), Jack must convince Lady Bracknell (Edie Deffebach) of his respectability. Having been abandoned as an infant in a handbag at Victoria Station, this is quite the impossible task. To further complicate the situation Algernon introduces himself to Jack’s ward Cecily as Ernest, while Jack claims his troublesome brother Ernest has died, setting off a chain of farcical events which come to a head when it is discovered Jack really is Ernest, son of Lady Bracknell’s sister, leaving him free to marry Gwendolen.
Many productions unsuccessfully attempt to modernise Wilde’s play; the production team’s decision to perform it in its original setting could not have been more appropriate. I must agree with Olli Gilford who stressed in his interview with The Saint a production as grandiose as this needs the Byre Theatre. I can’t think of a better working relationship than that of the Byre with Wilde’s play. The atmosphere created by the piano music as the audience entered the theatre down to the extravagant set perfectly encapsulated the ambience of the play. Also, the talent extended beyond the cast and crew as the set included a wonderful painted portrait of Arnie Birss as Algernon – a great touch that was not overlooked!
Of course, the aestheticism was supported by a fantastic cast, who in most cases performed convincingly and flawlessly. The subtle presence and humour of Michael Grieve as butler Lane was well executed and a great precursor to the style of humour contained in the play: it is both ridiculous and serious. The standout, exceptional performance of the night has to be Arnie Birss with Edie Deffebach coming a close second. There could not have been a more suiting Algernon than Mr. Birss whose humour was centre stage as he highlights the irony of a society preoccupied with manners through a mouthful of cucumber sandwiches. The first act was particularly strong as it displayed some of the best moments and performances from Arnie and Edie who received the biggest laughs of the night, particularly the scene where Lady Bracknell is interviewing Jack as a potential suitor for her daughter – for want of a better expression, Edie nailed it. Her performance was perfectly professional with her facial expressions deserving a special mention; her ability to keep a poker face during punch lines was impressive – a talent which did not extend to some other members of the cast who momentarily slipped out of character when they were pleased with audience reaction.
The casts’ use of props added to the realism of the experience, this was a particular strength of Laura Francis. Emma Taylor really came into her character the more the play developed; there is no denying her confidence. Her synchronism with Laura Francis was very well executed and the transition from falsity to tension to friendship was an entertaining and impressive performance; their performances together created more impactful humour than their individual performances. Arnie and Olli also worked well together; Olli must be commended on his effort in getting involved in a production of this scale in his first year. However, there was at times a notable rigidity in his performance and line delivery compared to the professionalism and fluidity of other characters.
This production deserves five stars. Not only did it live up to expectations, it exceeded them, holding the audience’s attention from start to finish. Every detail down to costume and makeup was naturalistic and appropriate and the cast and crew perfected the balance of seriousness with triviality. I congratulate all involved in the production and performance. I only wish I had went to the opening night so I could have seen it twice more.