Oscar Wilde’s supreme comedic treat is very much the play of the moment. A new version is about to open at the Theatre Royal in York, but first it’s the turn of Erica Whyman’s production at the Oxford Playhouse, which while lacking the frantic charm of Ridiculusmus’ two man run-through at the Barbican Pit, is nonetheless a very satisfying affair.
This is a distinctly gimmick-free and straightforward production: Victorian dress and simple, minimal sets. The overall effect is successful but the earlier London-set scenes lack sparkle. Guy Lankester, as Jack, and Dominic Rowan, as Algernon, seem too widely spaced on the stage and some of their banter evaporates in the gap. Nearly every Wildean line is a gem yet a number of laughs are lost through sluggish staging.
Things improve considerably in the second act when, in a lovely touch, Mark Bailey’s rich red wall hanging is rolled away to reveal a similar one in country house green. Once things have shifted away from the city, the pacing picks up immediately and the necessary energy returns; the performances of both Rowan and Lankester also seem to benefit from the scene change. Actually I’m probably being a little hard on them, both actors are talented and adept at the spiffy English thing, it’s just the complete connection to the text shown earlier this year by Ridiculusmus’ Jon Haynes and David Woods is a lot to live up to.
As Lady Bracknell, Maggie Steed is suitably formidable, though she underplays “a handbag” to the point where it almost drifts by unheard. Steed is a strong stage actress; her snooty interrogation of Jack is fantastic yet her Lady Bracknell isn’t a complete harridan, she shows a definite softer side when the play’s final ironic revelations come to light.
Gwendolen is played by Smack the Pony’s Sally Phillips in a puff-sleeved floral concoction. Having appeared in pretty much every British television comedy worth appearing in over recent years Phillips knows how to deliver a funny line – she’s also an accomplished physical comedian, spitting her sugar-laced tea across the stage with real relish.
Slender and striking in a flowing white gown, newcomer Amanda Hale makes an endearing Cecily. Though she initially irritates with her little girl brattishness, hers is a performance that soon grows on you. The scenes between her dippy and melodramatic Cecily and Phillips’ slightly uptight Gwendolen deservedly draw the biggest laughs. They spark off one another wonderfully and though Rowan and Lankester both have their moments as Jack and Algy, it’s the double act of Phillips and Hale that leaves the best impression.
It’s very difficult (though as the 2002 film version proved, not impossible) to make a hash of such impeccable material. Whyman places her trust in the text and does not overburden it with subtext or feel the need to rejig it for 21st century tastes. This is an old-fashioned yet elegant production of a wonderful work. What more could one wish for?