This show leaves me in a theatrical quandary: should classic works be modified or should they be left untouched? The classic work in question is of course Oscar Wilde’s famous comedy The Importance of being Earnest and the modification is the insertion of Gilbert and Sullivan show-tunes.
Don’t get me wrong. Front Row Theatre offers a talented, strong and believable cast for which any audience would be thankful. All the actors relish Wilde’s work and handle the text and comedic spirit of the piece with seeming ease. The issue here is the success of the marriage of Wilde and G & S. To try new things is the spice of theatrical life, but in my opinion this is a near miss. The addition of Gilbert and Sullivan songs seems a gratuitous one, although clever adaptation of lyrics put the songs in a slightly more credible context. It all just seems a bit discontinuous, forcing what is otherwise a concrete classic into a piece that at times borders on vaudeville.
The play is a classic case of mistaken identity. John Worthing (Simon Schmidt) concocts an imaginary brother, Ernest whose “escapades” give John a reason to leave the country and spend time in London. While in the city, John assumes Ernest’s identity and becomes engaged to Gwendolen (Cassandra Seidemann), who loves him chiefly for the name Ernest. John’s city friend, Algernon (Austin Caffin), learns of John’s secret and ventures into the country, also under the name of Ernest. John’s ward Cecily Cardew (Sarah Punch), having previously decided to marry the mysterious Ernest, is smitten upon meeting him (actually Algernon). However the double lives of John and Algernon become exposed as the girls meet each other and realise that they are, in fact engaged to the same man! Of course the truth comes out, forcefully helped by Gwendolyne’s battleaxe mother Laldy Bracknell (Monica Howard). A few twists and turns later and we end up with a very neat ending indeed.
The cast all give stellar performances. Schmidt is very convincing and delivers a performance which anchors the action around him. Seidemann and Punch shine as self-obsessed aristocrats with a subtle gleam of zaniness. Caffin is believable as the rich philandering friend. Howard’s Lady Bracknell commands attention and despite a few lost lines gains much laughter from the audience. Rita Scales and David O’Dowd complete the cast, with their entertaining portrayals of Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble.
Generally this is a well-directed piece by Carolyn Kinniburgh, with all characters ably handling the comedy with flawless timing. The English accents are well handled, but dialogue is often swallowed by the wings in this acoustically unforgiving hall. If the cast could keep facing mainly forward, this problem would easily be overcome. Choreography of the musical numbers is also generally static, which doesn’t help the discontinuity issue.
Musically speaking, this is a cast of tremendous vocal talent, all of whom are wonderful soloists in their own right. The chorus also have a pleasing and robust sound but often look out of place during the sporadic musical interludes. The accompanying pianist is too loud for the singers in some parts.
The costuming of the show is exquisite with eye-popping period dress a pleasing feature. The set is minimal, if incongruent with other design elements, though the cartoonesque fold-out backdrop proves a versatile addition. Action at the very front of the stage is dimly lit due to simple lighting but this doesn’t prove a major problem.
Despite issues with the G & S tunes, I did find this an enjoyable production that showcases some tremendous local talent. Kudos to Algernon Rowe for devising this adventurous adaptation. This is an admirable effort at trying something new and for that, Front Row Theatre should be applauded.