How could you top the recent, revelatory idea of Bristol Old Vic to stage Wilde's classic with an all-male cast? Possibly, by staging it with an all-male cast of two. Over the last dozen years or so, the Ridiculusmus duo of David Woods and Jon Haynes have built a reputation for adventurous, surreal work that doesn't always succeed but is consistently intriguing and usually fascinating. This is not only their first time working with an extant script, but also their first project with an external director, Jude Kelly. Kelly seems to give things a discipline that is sometimes missing from the company's shows (although that can be part of their appeal): over two and a half hours, twice the length of a more usual Ridiculusmus show, the focus and pace seldom vary. Indeed, this is the main problem.
There are a number of delicious touches: Algy getting ready to impersonate Ernest to the strains of The Smiths' "This Charming Man", or Woods playing Cecily as a nineteenth-century problem teen who cuts herself and can strike poses part-Princess Diana, part-Enid from Ghost World. Some lines acquire a new resonance from the two-man staging, as when Cecily anticipates Algy/"Ernest"'s first entrance with "I am so afraid he will look just like everyone else." [Enter Algernon] "He does!"
But for the most part, and notwithstanding the gratuitous packs of Special K and Maltesers on the back shelves onstage, this is a straight rendition. Haynes and Woods change from tailcoats to bustle dresses without frenzy: a few times they make a gag of the hiatus during a not-very-quick-change, and the final scene becomes largely a matter of hats rather than full costumes, but they eschew exploiting the one non-Wildean gag that's inherently available. Where, say, The Right Size would have lapsed within fifteen minutes into pratfalls and comedy fights, but also made an implicit commentary on the nature of the double-act, Ridiculusmus subvert our expectations by taking this absurd concept and then doing nothing with it but play the piece fundamentally as written. By those standards, it's a workmanlike, efficient reading (the dialogue in the garden between Gwendolen and Cecily, for instance, gets all the right laughs), but given their eccentric starting point it's bafflingly un-special.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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