First published in The Times, Monday October 18 2021
Nineteen months ago, before the pandemic ushered in theatre’s long hibernation, Perth Theatre staged a riotous version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, with five actors tackling the nine speaking parts. This new adaptation of Molière’s comedy, featuring a script by Grant O’Rourke and direction from Lu Kemp, is an even more ambitious test of its ensemble’s versatility, with a trio of performers covering the dozen or so roles.
Steve McNicoll (as the title character), Amy Kennedy and Cath Whitefield are not only skilled comic actors but also adept at navigating the mix of broad farce and dark satire. McNicoll is every inch the lothario, preening and manipulating everyone that crosses his path, turning on a sixpence to reveal the ruthless heart belied by the charm. Kennedy is a picture of righteous fury in the role of the jilted Donna Elvira, later appearing in fey Jack Whitehall mode as a pantomime toff with a ridiculous codpiece, mourning the loss of delicate Honeysuckle who was “more of an indoor horse” than a mighty mare.
Whitefield, as Sganarelle, the don’s uneasy sidekick, is this ensemble’s linchpin, bullied and kept on a short leash by the boss, but given to moments of defiance that suggest a worm slowly turning. Whitefield is also sweet, silly and touching as a whelk gatherer, mercilessly cuckolded by Don Juan.
O’Rourke’s script impresses with its wit and profanity, frequently hitting home with barbed references to landed rogues with the money and power to do whatever they want and get away with it. The sparkling dialogue would have been better served by a more dynamic production, however. Too often the actors remain grounded on Matthias Strahm’s set, a three-tier platform that adds height but little else to the stage. The farcical scenario and the trebling of roles require a much slicker fusion of physical and verbal comedy.
Kemp’s production gains pace and momentum in the second half, as the jeopardy builds and Don Juan becomes ensnared in a vice of his own making. The great Brian Cox also makes a delightful cameo appearance as the spirit of the don’s murdered father, coming across for all the world like an irascible, less cryptic version of the ghost from Hamlet.
Box office: 01738 621031, to October 30. Horsecross.co.uk