First published in The Times, Thursday August 6 2015
Line by line, Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece is so familiar you can almost hear the audience mouthing along to some of the speeches. Yet there’s a reverent hush before Margaret Preece, as Lady Bracknell, delivers the play’s most famous line. Will she opt for the time-honoured Edith Evans method of enunciating all nine of the syllables in the word “handbag” or, as it transpires, something altogether more understated but just as devastating?
Preece gives the standout performance in Richard Baron’s polished production, displaying a remarkable facility for all the verbiage while offering rare flashes of playful humour beneath the assumed role of the imperious matriarch who can reduce her adversaries to jelly with a gimlet look. The cheeky innovation of this production is that Lady Bracknell is fully complicit in John Worthing’s (Reece Richardson) mild deception of the doting Gwendolen (Emma Odell). When, at one point, Preece turns and winks at the audience, we sense the rich interior life beneath the whalebone and stiff skirts.
Baron’s production is at its best when the director allows Wilde’s razor-sharp insight into the hypocrisy and mercenary nature of Victorian society to speak for itself, uncluttered by physical comedy. Gavin Swift’s performance, as the industriously idle Algernon Moncrieff, is at times a touch hyperactive, garlanding every line of dialogue with its own distracting flourish.
On the other hand, the scene in which Gwendolen first encounters the fragrant Cecily (Ceri-lyn Cissone) is a master class in barely concealed mutual antipathy while Kathryn Martin and Mark Elstob are funny and even rather pathetically touching as Miss Prism and her adoring Canon Chasuble. Wilde’s deeply serious confection is played out against the backdrop of Ken Harrison’s elegantly detailed scenery designs, which are chewed with relish by Preece and the other members of the ensemble.
Box office: 01796 484626, to October 16. pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com