Review: The Importance of Being Earnest (The Elms)
Updated: Jun 2, 2022
No matter the strength of a production, I will always take my hat off to open air performances. There is always a great deal of risk and a great deal of work that goes into exposing a show to the elements and navigating around the lack of luxuries that a theatre provides (lighting, solid flooring, backstage area etc.) Theatre company Twice as Good know this only too well after having to cancel their opening night of their production of the Oscar Wilde classic "The Importance of Being Earnest" due to heavy rain, but the following night was warm and dry, giving them the perfect stage for a nice relaxed show.
And a nice and relaxed show it is too. You know you are not coming for something creatively innovative, you are coming for an evening of relaxed entertainment of Wilde's witty writing in an unusual setting, Tauranga's historic building and grounds from the early 19th century, The Elms. Director Suzy Sampson does not let this production feel dull though. There is meticulous attention to detail in everything from the lavish art deco design (the detail of which is so fine that even the purses used to sell chocolate to the the audience were vintage) to the flowing and well timed dialogue and blocking. Sampson's costume design is particularly strong, highlighting the character's key qualities before they even speak (e.g. Algernon's flashy and confident white suit, Gwendolyn's harsh block colours of red, white and black).
For those unfamiliar with the farcical play, it follows two young bachelors, Jack and Algernon, as they try to win the affections of two young women, Gwendolyn and Cecily, by adopting false personas, both under the name of Earnest. If poorly performed, the show can be a little hard to follow, but there are some really entertaining performances on display. Cameron Buchanan's cocky swagger as Algernon bounced beautifully off Jazzy Axton's cheekiness as Cecily, and Sarah Bate's Lady Bracknell, though not the show stealer her character can sometimes become, draws a precise line between being expressive and being realistically understated to complement the comedy.
Arumia Hayles took a slightly unexpected approach with Gwendolyn, portraying her as quite a harsh and irritatingly smug character. While I was not totally sold on her chemistry with Michael Hayles performing as a charming and likeable Jack, I did enjoy the cynical interpretation of the character as it added a bit of variety and gained a couple of chuckles, especially when performing with Axton. Sadly though I did find Annie Lawler's performance as Miss Prism to be a grating distraction; while initially tripping over lines was not unexpected (the mics fluttered occasionally and honestly everybody does it), the overly exuberant gestures and enunciation meant she chewed the scenery.
You are unlikely to be surprised, but whether or not you are familiar with the play the production does a marvellous job. This is a production tailor made for lovers of the play as you can see how much the creative team behind it love it themselves, and its endearing and amusing characters can win anyone over. Sitting on a blanket or in a folding chair as the light dims and the stage is lit by fairy lights gives a really intimate theatrical experience, and one that acts as a perfect showcase for this enduring play. Four stars.