For more than two decades, Liza Goddard has made a career out of being bubbly, jolly and smilingly toothsome. The idea of casting her as Lady Bracknell might seem a parlour-game fancy on a level with, say, Bruce Forsyth's King Lear, Phillip Schofield's Iago or Zoë Ball's Hedda Gabler. This is too cruel a dismissal, but nevertheless her determination to do justice to the role blends with a paradoxical vein of it's-only-me friendliness. Thus, on the one hand she tries terribly hard not to deliver The Line and its companions à la Edith Evans (and succeeds, albeit at the expense of much of the force of Bracknell's interrogation of Jack), yet on the other she can be seen on several occasions darting brief glances of complicity at the audience, as if trying to restrain herself from clocking us outright.
No such restraint bothers Dora Bryan as Miss Prism: when pulled up short on her final-act entrance by Lady Bracknell's cry of "Prism!", Bryan makes sure her frozen stare catches the stalls full-on. One suspects that she half-expects applause on her first entrance, with her singsong cry of "Cecileee!" from offstage designed to prime us. The role is, however, prime Bryan territory, and she engages in some nice elderly fumbling and flushing business with Geoffrey Davies's Canon Chasuble.
Val May's production of the three-act version of Wilde's play, performed against the Brighton Pavilion trellis-work of Tim Shortall's design, is thoroughly serviceable, although it offers little inducement (beyond the "names") for punters to see this production as opposed to the one which, we can be certain, will be along in a few minutes' time. Matthew Finney and Sophie Millett look frighteningly youthful as Algy and Cecily (although I may simply have reached that point in life where policemen seem to be getting younger), but are well matched, as are Robin Lermitte and Tracey Childs as Jack and Gwendolen; Childs and Millett prove once again that the set-piece highlight of the play is not in Lady Bracknell's hands at all, but the magnificent second-act clash of the two young ladies. Overall, though, this Earnest is neither a joy nor a disappointment, neither compulsive nor repulsive. To paraphrase the poet: it is, you may say, satisfactory.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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