Over the last 12 months or so I’ve seen a lot of student theatre, especially at Curtin and Murdoch Universities and they tell me ECU has pretty handy acting and musical theatre departments on their Mount Lawley campus. It had me wondering what my alma mater UWA was up to on the theatrical front especially given I’ve seen a couple of independent productions at the Dolphin Theatre recently. So off I went to see my first University Dramatic Society (UDS) production with a sense of curiosity and, to be honest, no real expectations.
I’ve written before about those shows that sneak up and surprise you. Last year it was WAAPA’s Children of Eden and Roleystone Theatre’s The Great American Trailer Park Musical. Well, you can add The Importance of Being Earnest to that list. I knew none of the cast or crew but this was a thoroughly entertaining evening that even with two intermissions whizzed by.
Any discussion of the play has to start with the writing. It is dazzling and full of the trademark wit and dry observation Oscar Wilde is renowned for. The dialogue crackles and fizzes with intelligence and razor sharp humour that makes listening to the exchanges an absolute delight. The tale of fictitious identities and resultant romantic entanglements is expertly crafted even if the major revelation at the end now suffers somewhat from what I call “Luke, I am your father” syndrome. Yes, modern audiences have endured variations of the familial twist for well over a hundred years which tends to temper our surprise. However, that is a minor consideration.
The major one by comparison is how well performed and presented the whole endeavour was. The standouts for me were Ben Thomas as Algernon who relished the language and was suitably sly and mischievous; and Rebecca Egan as Cecily Cardew whose recounting of her engagement to ‘Earnest’ was a highlight. Rupert Williamson was excellent as John Worthing and his verbal jousting with particularly Thomas was rapid fire and engaging. Grace Chapple made for a haughty Gwendolyn and her set piece exchange with Egan in what was a dazzling second act was another highlight.
I warmed to Rebecca Cole’s Lady Bracknell over time – her more deliberate delivery and impressive rolling R’s felt a little out of kilter at first but she was a forceful presence in the third act as befitted the character’s status. Sally Clune’s Miss Prism, she of the formidable pout and excellent aging makeup, stumbled a few times with the dialogue and tended to, along with Ben McAllister’s Reverend, to flirt with caricature. The latter was playing up exaggerated physical movement for laughs but the writing is so good that it felt superfluous. Matt Perrett and Lily Protter rounded out the cast as the ‘hired help’.
As mentioned, the second act where the all major characters collide in the countryside was quite an inspired piece of theatre brimming with comedy. It is also a very handsome production with excellent costuming and well-appointed sets such as the trestles laced with flowers in that countryside setting along with a tree and even swing to stage left. The interior sets were all lounge chairs and settees and an amazing amount of cucumbers and muffins were sacrificed in the making of the show. In this regard, Ben Thomas showed an almost Brad Pitt level of skill in eating whilst acting!
I very much enjoyed the first UDS production of 2015 and walked away impressed by the acting and overall presentation. I was sitting next to a couple whose grand-daughter I believe it was had been involved with the costuming. They had seen the play starring Judi Dench in London but liked this one more. When I inquired as to why they remarked that Dame Judi was head and shoulders above the rest of the cast which unbalanced that production. It is fair to say that this is not the case here where the scintillating dialogue and banter is well delivered by the principals. It is a very funny and breezy show that was well appreciated by a good sized audience.
Written by Oscar Wilde, Directed by Antonina Heymanson and starring Rupert Williamson, Ben Thomas, Grace Chapple, Rebecca Egan, Rebecca Cole, Sally Clune, Ben McAllister, Matt Perrett, and Lily Protter there are three more shows left at the Dolphin Theatre on the UWA campus, Thursday through to Saturday 2 May.