Oscar Wilde's trivial comedy for serious people has a pronounced summery feel about it and is not as absurd a choice for the open air as it might first seem. But Irina Brown's revival is a spirited denial of the bosky surround, placing both Algernon's Half Moon Street apartment and the Manor House in Hertfordshire on a white disc with a white ramp and a white grand piano.
This design by Kevin Knight creates a barrier between audience and play that the actors work hard to break down – with some success – though they are dreadfully impeded by their personal amplification systems. Susan Wooldridge's Lady Bracknell sounds as though she's speaking in a wind tunnel, although the hat she wears made of an entire riverbed of bull rushes suggests an elemental derivation appropriate to her stentorian delivery.
This is no conventional production, but of course there is no better way of delivering the text than with spirit and speed. On the whole, the actors achieve this, sticking to the usual three-act version and finding a proper rhythm for the great interview and witty duelling scenes: the examination by Lady B of Algy's credentials, the bluff and counter-bluff of Algy's tactical campaign of seduction, the rivalrous bickering of Cecily and Jo Herbert's imperious Gwendolen, a girl who will resemble her mother in far fewer than her allotted 150 years.
Dominic Tighe's Algy is a transparent cad and chancer, played on the wing with a neat turn of foot, while Ryan Kiggell's Jack Worthing is a comic embodiment of dogged persistence. The play wins through to such an extent you begin to forget the battle being waged against it by the production. Lucy Briggs Owen is a delightfully recalcitrant Cecily and there are two beautifully detailed, even charming, cameos by Julie Legrand as a slyly spinsterish, surprisingly willowy Miss Prism and Richard O'Callaghan as the accommodating, hand-wringing Canon Chasuble.
Miss Wooldridge exchanges her riverbed extravaganza for a deep purple hunting dress with a stovepipe black topper, to ensure she retains the whip hand. She sails up and down the ramp like a stately galleon, and nobody can deny at those moments that she has gone for a walk on the Wilde side.
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