When first premiered on February 14 1895, Oscar Wilde primed his audience describing his play as “a trivial comedy for serious people”.
More than 123 years on, this humorous commentary on late 19th century life for the “privileged” presented by the Knaresborough Players has lost none of its sparkle nor relevance to the present day.
In her first outing as a director, Sarah Chisem has successfully brought to life the wit, nuance and depth that Wilde had created on the page.
Her attention to detail allows the audience to sit back and enjoy, facilitating deeper exploration of the characters, complemented by the set, period costumes and of course the razor sharp dialogue.
The script serves not only as a reminder of the power of the well-spoken word, but also how style and expression can sometimes twist a truth or hide a secret.
Two friends Jack, Andy Stanley, and Algernon, Ian Chisem,are the constant figures. The excellent portrayal of Jack as the caddishupwardly mobile and eligible man from humble beginnings sets the tone for this production, interspersed whimsically with the studious, academic, intelligent, bored, condescending yet equally deceptive Algernon.
Phil Simms plays Lane, the first of two butlers to feature. The subtle portrayal of a man in service but taking full advantage of his employer was a delightful cameo, as was Colin Beveridge as Merriman our second butler, whose use of sarcasm through facial expression and tone of delivery was a thoughtful contrast.
Annette Brunton plays Miss Prism. Hers is a likeable portrayal of a mature woman whose unrequited affections bubble under the surface for Reverend Chasuble, played immaculately by Ian Hagues.
Shona Read Lang played Gwendolen and encapsulated the clipped, upper class and outwardly stylish socialite with a poetically smooth delivery of dialogue that emphasised her character’s belief in style over substance. Jemma Bunting played Cecilia with a convincing light touch as the young debutant with romantic notions who is under the wing of her tutor Miss Prism.
Last but by no means least, Lady Bracknell, Emilie Knight, brings the word “earnest” to life as the model of seriousness and clear intent. With strong enunciation being but one of the techniques employed to allow the audience to gain an insight into who really wields the power within this cohort, we see a glimpse or two of vulnerability which was a delight.
The Knaresborough Players delightfully packaged production reminded me that in the present day where style and substance, guilty secrets, and the lifestyles of the rich and famous remain as fascinating now as in the Victorian era, it is still possible to be entertained, educated and engaged by a stage performance.