Christopher Beeny, Lucy Briggs Owen, Jo Herbert, Jim Hooper, Ryan Kiggell, Julie Legrand, Richard O’Callaghan, Dominic Tighe, Susan Wooldridge
The Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park is indisputably one of the loveliest performance spaces in London.
Surrounded by green, canopied by a pinking sky, it is a glorious place to be, even on a typically British evening full of hovering clouds forever threatening to unburden themselves.
It is also a space that places certain demands on both the audience and the performers.
There are issues of audibility, there is not much room for nuance, a high premium is placed on the idea of ‘charm’.
And then, of course, there’s the weather, the wilful English sky, which looms like a dog on a worn, thin leash that could snap at any time.
Irina Brown’s production opens in a charming manner with the parp and twang of live music accompanying the actors as they stroll down the steps to the stage. Once there they turn and squint at the audience through a series of optical devices: binoculars, spectacles, a magnifying glass. They look at us as we look at them.
A shame then that the scenes following this beguiling opening have the grace and pace of a tottering old man. The sky seems to agree. A few thick drips fall on our heads and then the rain starts to curtain down. Hoods, hats and brollies are unfurled while the actors battle on, with Dominic Tighe’s Algernon gamely scoffing cucumber sandwiches as his shirt shoulders dampen, and Ryan Kiggell’s stuffy, slow-tongued Jack looking about anxiously.
After the interval things brighten considerably, and not just meteorologically-speaking, though the rain does cease. The stage has been reset to resemble Regent’s Park’s rose garden, with knee-high pink blooms and a small Japanese bridge. Then Lucy Briggs Owen’s Cecily arrives wide of eye and dressed in flowing white, girlish yet knowing, skittering yet seductive and her presence immediately lifts things.
Her double act with Jo Herbert’s Gwendoline is delightful, especially in the scene where Herbert forces herself to swallow a mouthful of sugared tea. It’s a lovely glowing moment in a production rather short of them. Whenever the production hits its stride, it does something to undermine itself. The chief sin in this regard is an interminably long scene change, the ponderousness of which no amount of amiable musical accompaniment can camouflage. It goes on forever.
This aside, the second half is tighter in many respects; there are some clever visual touches and, to her credit, Brown does succeeds in making the audience really listen to lines that are in danger of being blunted by over-familiarity. The set’s curving white ramp is put to much comic use and there are some wonderfully elaborate hats. But the production too rarely nails the fizz and wit of Wilde’s words and while the production does display a great degree of charm – of the white linen and Pimm’s kind – it doesn’t have much else to offer.