Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames
Opened 5 October, 2011
*** / ***
A puzzling pairing, this. For several performances during the run (one couldn’t in all conscience describe the two plays as being “in repertoire” with each other), Wilde’s classic is interspersed with or preceded by Harley Granville-Barker’s one-act piece, which is here receiving its première full staging. The two works have little in common: Wilde really should have stuck with the glittering but hollow paradox of his first-draft subtitle, “a serious comedy for trivial people”, rather than switching the adjectives, whereas Granville-Barker’s play is entirely in earnest. That is not to say it is sombre; it includes a number of quasi-Wildean epigrams, but where Wilde deployed his arsenal in order at best to sugar the points he made and sometimes to avoid making any at all, the barbs in Farewell To The Theatre are the cynical candour of old friends.
More than friends, in fact: Edward has not only been Dorothy’s lawyer for many years but has proposed marriage to her on several occasions. Here, as they survey the worsening finances of her theatre and she decides finally to retire, their conversation turns again and again to the difference between Edward’s conviction in personal substance and integrity and Dorothy’s “that the world of other people is the only world there is”, which sometimes means appearing insubstantial but is no less meaningful as a life choice. It was Granville-Barker’s own valediction in 1916. Jane Asher and Richard Cordery breathe life into the conversation without, in Stephen Unwin’s production, animating it excessively.
They return in the Wilde, with Cordery’s touching faith as Edward replaced by amiable bumbling as Canon Chasuble and Asher as Lady Bracknell occasionally resembling Margaret Thatcher in shriller mode. This is a fine, unspectacular rendition of the play with neither triumphs nor disasters, although Bruce Mackinnon’s too-21st-century camp as Algy can set one’s teeth on edge now and again. Hayden Griffin’s design puts a mock-picture frame around the action on the Rose’s proscenium-arch-less stage; Unwin may be a little too keen to demonstrate the theatre’s versatility by having the Canon and Miss Prism exit and enter through the auditorium. Kirsty Besterman and Jenny Rainsford (in her professional début) are assured in their control of the central, delicious Gwendolen/Cecily duologue, and the production will do admirably until the next Earnest comes along in a while.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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