The Importance of Being Earnest [Chapterhouse] – Review – Oakwell Hall

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By Christine Goode, August 2023

A British summer evening and we head for Oakwell Hall, a Grade 1 listed Elizabethan manor house in Birstall: the perfect setting for the Chapterhouse open air production of this classic play by Oscar Wilde. As we arrive, everyone is milling around (some have even brought their dogs along!) then they move toward the performance area on the lawn at the back of this stunning building and we follow, loaded down with picnics, chairs, umbrellas, and all necessary weather precautions that one would expect to be needed when watching anything outdoors in dear old Blighty!

The play is known for its wit and humour and the opportunity to picnic in this beautiful setting enhances the performance, as we feel we are almost in the play. As we watch the pompous Victorian characters dine on their afternoon tea it is almost as if we are sharing the experience with them.

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The scenery is simple yet effective, with a contrast of black and white – the sketched backdrop sets the scene along with unusually but clever mono-toned sketched which looks almost cartoon like, adding humour to the play. This works extremely well as the flamboyant characters enter the stage, their colourful costumes ‘pop’ and our attention is instantly drawn. The lighting and sound is minimal – this is not a play that calls for special effects as the content is so captivating.

We meet Algernon Moncrieff (Troy Chessman), a charming, idle, decorative bachelor who is nephew to the infamous Lady Bracknell (Alan McLaren) and friend to Jack Worthing (James Mole) a responsible and respectable young man who leads a double life, and is known as Jack in the Country and Ernest in London. The pair meet and he falls in love with Gwendolen Fairfax (Jennifer Hartland) and Cecily Cardew (Molly Gudz) respectively, and adding to the mix is the complicated Miss Prism (Marie Browne). This is farcical comedy at its best, the situations each stiff upper lip character manage to get themselves into is hilarious, and we laugh along at the cringeworthy situations mockingly portrayed in Victorian times.

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Chessman’s caddish portrayal of Algernon is fabulous: his expression and movement portray the flamboyance of his character, the comedic timing with Mole is perfect and the chemistry between the two actors is very plausible. A stand out performance from McLaren as Lady Bracknell is very memorable and left many chuckling, lifting the atmosphere every time he is on stage. At times, some of the actors could not be heard due to the sounds of the nearby motorway, which was unfortunate but unavoidable given the outdoor setting.

With a cast of only six, these talented actors played ten characters between them, with quick costume and seamless scenery changes giving a slick production and leaving a delighted audience, as we all pack up and head back to the car park I hear many singing its praises. This outdoor performance has a unique charm and despite the minor distraction of the nearby motorway and the rain that eventually came we still had a very memorable experience combining the enjoyment of theatre and the beauty of nature and the magnificence of Oakwell Hall.


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