The Autumn season at Kingston’s Rose Theatre opens with a double-bill of sorts that intriguingly pairs one classic, oft-performed play, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, with another that’s receiving its (rather belated) world premiere, Harley Granville Barker’s 1916 one-acter Farewell to the Theatre.
Directed by the Rose’s Artistic Director Stephen Unwin and starring Jane Asher, the two productions play in rep. However, their pairing doesn’t seem to have been motivated by any particular deep connection between the two pieces, beyond what Unwin has termed his “perverse pleasure [in tackling] one play especially conceived for the proscenium arch … and another about saying goodbye to that kind of theatre forever.”
Farewell to the Theatre - which is also, rather confusingly, the title chosen by Richard Nelson for his forthcoming play about Granville Barker at Hampstead Theatre - takes the form of a duologue between an actress, Dorothy (Asher), and her lawyer, Edward (Richard Cordery), whom she meets to discuss her possible retirement. Dorothy has grown to distain the business of soliciting money to get plays put on, and as the pair discuss the financial prospects (none too good) of the production that she is about to appear in, the play touches upon the protagonists’ personal and professional regrets, finally broadening out into a wider discussion of changes in the theatre and the function of the artist.
Reflecting Granville Barker’s own concerns about the direction of the theatre at the turn-of-the-century, it’s easy to see the appeal of Farewell to the Theatre to those “in the business.” But the play’s musings on theatrical matters may hold less appeal for general audiences. Unwin’s production is competently performed, with Asher stylish and Cordery warm and wry, and it generates more interest towards the end, when the discussion takes a philosophical turn. But the overall effect is static and slightly smug; Granville Barker may be concerned with the function of the theatre here, but what he has produced feels in form and concept more like a radio play.
Happily, The Importance of Being Earnest proves a much more successful and engaging experience. The play is, of course, invariably a pleasure and Unwin’s production has genuine charm. Designed with unobtrusive elegance by Hayden Griffin, the approach is very much in the traditional mould of, say, Peter Hall’s The Rivals rather than the po-mo stylistic revisionism of a Deborah Warner School for Scandal. Unwin and his team offer an unfussy, no-nonsense take on a play whose most famous lines are by now so well known that the audience laughs in anticipation of them.
Still, the production feels vivid and fresh. Asher’s Lady Bracknell could do with a little more vocal heft at times, but her lines zing anyway, and she has some superb moments, not least the classic scene in which she interrogates Jack (the excellent Daniel Brocklebank).
Asher is also well supported by Bruce Mackinnon, who’s a delightful Algernon. Making her professional debut as Cecily, Jenny Rainsford takes a little while to warm up, but her central scene with Kirsty Besterman’s superb Gwendolen is perfectly played. And there’s amusing work from Walter Van Dyk, doubling as the butlers Merriman and Lane, from Cordery as Rev. Canon Chasuble, and from Ishia Bennison who adorably turns Miss Prism’s prudery into a form of flirtatiousness. Two lengthy intervals slow the evening a little more than is necessary. But this remains an accomplished and very enjoyable production that keeps you giggling contentedly throughout.
The productions run until 30 October. Further information at the Rose website.
Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.