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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Vaudeville Theatre


  Emily Barber and Michael Benz

“A handbag?” Usually delivered in tones of thunderous patrician outrage, this three-syllable line is surely one of the most infamous in English theatrical comedy. Awaiting its utterance by Lady Bracknell in any production of Oscar Wilde’s celebrated confection can be a rather squirm-inducing experience: Can the actor hope to bring any originality to words that have become so notorious? Will some idiot spectators, eager to show off their sophistication and familiarity with the text, start to chortle in the pause, generally crucial for comic timing, before the line is even spoken? (Someone almost always does.)
Happily, this new staging by Adrian Noble daintily dodges all those pitfalls – and David Suchet, dragged up as the redoubtable Aunt Augusta, brings all sorts of cunning and surprising little touches to the role. Not least of these is the handbag line, which is very nearly tossed nonchalantly away in a flurry of dismissive chuckles. Suchet saves eye-popping repulsion for a subsequent remark, in response to Jack’s assertion that the reticule in which his infant self was secreted was discovered in a Victoria station cloakroom on the Brighton line. “The line is immaterial,” Suchet bellows. And yes – it’s very, very funny.
Admittedly, there’s often something a little over-deliberate about it, but the great pleasure of Suchet’s performance is that it is always more grande dame than pantomime dame. His vocal delivery is particularly clever. It’s heightened and lightened, but it’s no shrill parody of femininity. Instead, it sounds genuinely like the mellowed, slightly cracked tone of an ageing, genteel woman. He blends imperiousness with a hilarious coquettishness, batting his eyelashes, pouting and striking demure postures when Lady Bracknell suspects honey might be more potent than vinegar. And there’s a moment of real social embarrassment in the third act when s/he accidentally lets slip her humble origins prior to marriage to the henpecked Lord Bracknell. Augusta’s anxiety that Gwendolen should marry similarly well suddenly takes on a dimension that extends beyond mere snobbery. Finally, too, as all the young people – and even the perpetrator of all the muddle, Miss Prism, and the local cleric – are romantically paired off, Suchet’s Lady B is left alone and isolated. It’s an instant of real poignancy that suggests the Bracknells' marriage of convenience may have been a lonely one.
Suchet’s is not the only portrayal with flashes of freshness here. What’s curious is that they all sit inside a production that in some ways feels otherwise rather stale. Peter McKintosh’s designs, with their laboriously detailed but cardboardy interiors and flapping cloths backdrops, are strangely old fashioned, and a broad, presentational quality intrudes among the colour and detail of the acting. That the acts are divided by two intervals doesn’t help, giving the evening a choppy, drawn-out feel. But when it flies, it’s still great fun. Michael Benz as Jack, young, blond and energetic, has a boyish fizz, bubbling over with excitement at the prospect of proposing to Emily Barber’s snooty, vigorous Gwendolen, who herself bounces up and down with glee as she waits impatiently to accept him. Philip Cumbus as Algernon is a cheeky, elegant flirt who is wholeheartedly smitten at first sight with Imogen Doel’s Cecily, his arrogance draining instantly away and love turning him into a waistcoat-tugging, tongue-tied, blushing schoolboy. Doel, meanwhile, pretty and doll-like with a high, fluting voice, is a sweet but spoilt bundle of caprice and entitlement. She retches when she hears Algy’s real name, and is furious when she realises that she will not, in the end, get an Earnest of her own. And her tea-table face-off with Barber’s Gwendolen is wonderfully entertaining, spiked with spite and kittenish naughtiness. And though it’s rather a shame that she’s not matched by a more appealing Chasuble – Richard O’Callaghan is a bit of a ham in the role – Michele Dotrice’s giggly, passion-hungry Miss Prism is touchingly likable. All in all, there’s much to relish here, and for all its faults, Noble’s is a production that ultimately delivers rather more than it promises.


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