REVIEW: Earnest (Fractious Tash and Last Tapes Theatre Company)

Earnest

Earnest goes Wilde [by Sharu Delilkan and Tim Booth]

Cole Jenkins belts out some period tunes with great gusto.  (Photo by  Tatiana Harper)
Cole Jenkins belts out some period tunes with great gusto. (Photo by Tatiana Harper)

It’s interesting that The Importance of Being Earnest is often performed as a ‘straight’ interpretation, which is ironic given the gay essence of the closeted homosexual playwright’s well-known work. And to be honest a key reason I was keen to see this version was its premise of a fresh innovative take on this tried and tested classic.

But fresh is probably an understatement when it comes to director Ben Henson’s vision to realise the homosexual subtext of Oscar Wilde’s infamous piece. Just a word of warning…if you’re an Importance of Being Earnest purist my advice is stay away. But if like me, and happy to put your trust in Henson’s OTT reimagining of Wilde’s gem, then this is definitely not to be missed.

You know devilish delights are in store as soon as you start walking up the stairs to Q’s Loft, particularly when you’re greeted by a number of the actors already in character. And the live band equally set the tone for the smoky 1950’s London-esque gay bar we’re inadvertently thrust into. Pointedly the live band were all female as a counterpoint to the all-male cast, apart from the pianist aka musical director Robin Kelly.

Earnest is bold, elegant, gay and remarkably true to its roots in everything performed on stage which also includes many off-stage antics as well. A stylish and ‘Bunbury-esque’ night club feel with waiters, gin and tonics – frivolity and fun. The idea to rework this classic with eight gentlemen is genius and to use Cher’s music is sublime.

‘The scene’ is beautifully set and maintained throught – with the all-male cast you can’t help feeling that Wilde himself would have revelled and delighted in this production of his most famous work. What could have been easily portrayed as gay abandon, is instead an honest and heartfelt interpretation of Wilde’s memorable lines.

It was indeed a privilege to witness the sassy collaboration between Auckland young bloods Fractious Tash and Last Tapes Theatre Company (The Last Five Years, VERBATIM).

Stephen Butterworth as Lady Bracknell was just a delightfully waspish on stage as he was making barbed comments from off the stage. He’s devilishly fiendish as are the leading deceptionists Algernon (Jordan Mooney) and Jack aka John aka Earnest (David Sutherland). All of whom shone and kept that shine throughout the performance, as the anchors (and wankers) of the story. The love interests portrayed by Oscar Wilson (Gwendolen) and Eli Matthewson (Cecily) were suitably one-dimensional for the era, and beautifully managed as male characters rather than men camping it up as women. Andrew Ford (Chasuble) as always was utterly hilarious and poignant in his love for the very clever, rough-and-tumble version of Miss Prism that Jordan Selwyn brought to the table in this crowdpleaser. Cole Jenkins, as Lane and Merriman, provided the snooty Jeeves to everyone’s Wooster and belted out some period tunes with great gusto and dedication.

Musical pieces started, amused, interloped and finished this piece. And if anyone thought the piece a bit lengthy, the show could benefit from culling these back a bit – perhaps by using a couple of introductory versus for some of the numbers instead of performing them in their entirety – a personal preference that I think would have given the same effect without sacrificing any of the intended hilarity.

Authenticity was everywhere, especially having a live band on stage. I have to say they were exemplary throughout – providing the backbone of the show, creating the ambience with the backing to the songs and quirky sound effects which were ever present throughout.

With Henson (Titus, Confessions, Camino Real) at the helm, this somewhat warped version of The Importance of Being Earnest combines classic one-liners with Kelly’s live soundtrack and musical arrangement perfectly.

Rachel Marlow’s ability to transform the space from a seedy bar to both Earnest’s and Cecily’s homes is distinctively effective in design, complemented by technical operator Brad Gledhill’s crisp execution throughout the show. Elizabeth Whiting and Gayle Jackson’s costume design is equally simple and effective, shining the light on Lady Bracknell’s colourfully sensational outfit(s) as is John Parker’s understated and minimalistic set that’s pitched just right.

The best thing for me was despite, or most definitely because of Henson’s mad, crazy, spectacle, Wilde’s language is elevated to even more amusing, evocative, truthful and wonderful heights.

Watching the crowd filling the thrust staging fed my voyeuristic-side as we were privy to the audience’s facial expressions displaying sheer delight and joy. And comments that we overheard as we filed out of the Loft doubly confirmed that sentiment.

This rebooted and revamped take of Oscar’s quintessential comedy overflows with vibrant wit, definitive boldness and categorical ridiculousness.

Despite Henson’s reputation as an inventive and innovative director, upon closer inspection we realise that Earnest is not merely a crazy fun night out but a timely and meaningful interpretation of Wilde’s characters and language.

I’m pretty flirtingly sure that Wilde would have enjoyed this immensely, had he been able to obtain a ticket.

Presented by Fractious Tash and Last Tapes Theatre Company in collaboration with Q Theatre, Earnest plays at Q The Loft until 6 Sept. Details see Q

SEE ALSO: Theatreview review by Vanessa Byrnes

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