7 June 2019.
Bolton Octagon, at Bolton Albert Halls.
“Ladies with an attitude
Fellows that were in the mood
Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it
Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it“.
Anyone heading to Bolton for a bit of Bunburying is in for a surprise. In a prelude to the main action, Oscar Wilde’s protagonists preen and pose in time to the souped-up strains of a piece of classical music. Presenting themselves for closer inspection they peer out at the audience through gilt picture frames, dramatically snap open their fans, and trace lines around their faces with fluid arm movements as if vogueing.
It’s a cheeky, stall-setting-out intro to a high energy romp through Wilde’s classic comedy of courtship, confusion and identity in fashionable high society. A world where appearance matters.
More visual flourishes arise from the reimagining of young bachelor Algernon’s drawing room as one of the late nineteenth century’s first photographic studios. Characters will suddenly stop mid-action as his camera flashes into life, capturing them at key moments frozen in time.
Algernon’s flash gun isn’t the only thing popping. David Woodhead’s design is eye-catching and elegant. Colourful costumes, cinematic backdrops, bright lights and carefully deployed period clutter skilfully complement the venue’s grand sense of space and high ornate ceilings while ensuring attention is firmly drawn to what’s happening on stage.
A pink flamingo, a tuba and even a stuffed goat’s head can be spied among the eccentric assortment of props, for use in photographic tableaux, that litter the set in the opening act. While when Algernon’s manservant Lane enters for the first time he is clad in a toga and roman sandals ready for a session in front of the camera.
Suba Das’s production rattles cheerfully through the play with little standing on ceremony – characters address the audience, share knowing looks or deploy deadpan expressions directly at us. Unfortunately, there’s no disguising the Albert Halls’ truly dire acoustics, and occasionally Wilde’s fine words are muffled in the mix. This may explain Sarah Ball’s annoyingly shouty Lady Bracknell, but it doesn’t excuse it.
Fortunately, there is much that is easy on the ear. Gwendolen might complain that “there’s very little music in the name Jack“, but there’s an abundance of it here, and not just at the mention of Ernest. It’s deployed to soundtrack Lady Bracknell’s grand entrances, highlight Wildean witticisms with a single sonic ‘ping’, and accompany Cecily and Gwendolen leading their menfolk a merry dance. Algernon even has a go at playing a burst of the Wedding March on the Albert Halls’ rather imposing organ.
John Singer Sargent‘s brushstrokes adorn the staging’s expressive backdrops, while five of Sargent’s portraits hang on the walls of Jack’s Manor House – where Madame X meets Lady B. The women in the paintings, like Wilde’s female characters, exude strength and confidence. Cecily and Gwendolen are women of passion and determination. It’s the men who are portrayed as subservient and, here, they are often to be found on their knees when in the presence of the ladies they desire.
The cast performs with fizzy enthusiasm. Dean Fagen is a very charming gentleman Jack, and Jack Hardwick’s Algernon is his entertainingly raffish sparring partner. Elizabeth Twells is a thoroughly modern missy, ready to fire off a pot-shot in plus fours or unexpectedly strip down to her corset, while Melissa Lowe’s Cecily is a ditzy delight.
For all its good looks, there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Das’s layered production is refreshingly irreverent but thoughtfully assembled, both stylish and surprising,