The Importance of Being Earnest

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Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reviewed by Matthew Forrest

It has to be said I was approaching The Importance of Being Earnest with some degree of in trepidation: my only other encounter with the play occurred some 25 years previous with a rather tepid class reading by 9J at St Gregory’s Roman Catholic High School: It would be fair to say that it was a lack-lustre affair, and my Algernon Moncrieff was poor by anyone standards. To be told by our English teacher that this was a ‘comedy’ was an insult – we didn’t laugh once.

I’m happy to say Director Alastair Whatley’s take on the Oscar Wilde’s classic lays that ghost firmly to rest: this adaptation is bold, bright and full of life which will leave you grinning from ear-to-ear.

The plot focuses on two-men-about town, Algernon Moncrieff (Thomas Howes) and Jack Worthing (Peter Sandys-Clarke) both have created a fictional double life for themselves which allows them to get out of social occasions on a whim, and visit the country/city whenever they fancy. However both men’s double-lives land them in hot-water as affections of two ladies come into play, Miss Gwendolen Fairfax (Kerry Ellis) and Cecily Cardew (Louise Coulthard), have both fallen for Earnest Worthing, the fictional alter ego/brother created by Jack.

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Howes is on great form playing the devilishly mischievous Moncrieff, lapping it up as he gets to eat lot of muffins and use the stage as his own sofa: the dream job! He is the perfect foil for Sandys-Clarke who’s up-tight Jack, attempts to keep his dignity whilst his world crashes in around him.

Coulthard is excellent in the role of exceedingly clever if slightly unhinged Cecily, Coulthard plays the part with comedic perfection. West End and Broadway favourite Kerry Ellis is equally as good in the somewhat less ‘showy’ role of Gwendolen, (her first straight play in this her 20th year in the business). There is more than a hint of Blackadder’s Queenie in both performances which is high praise indeed. A scene between the two where a slice of cake, is used as a weapon is an absolute treat and is surely the most passive-aggressive afternoon tea I’ve ever seen.

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Gwen Taylor puts a unique spin on the arrogant, seemingly omnipotent but ignorant Lady Bracknell giving the character a hint of warmth and humanity, which makes some of her more unique lines of dialogue all the more absurd.

The Costumes and set design by Gabriella Slade are full bright colours which really stand out, that coupled with the gusto of the performances give the production a burst of energy.

Wilde’s writing certainly has stood the test of time, with a play about social etiquettes and living a double life who knows what he would make of today’s social media obsessed world.

With a great deal of relevance today this is a fun entertaining night out, that will leave you with a smile on your face and the sudden urge to go get a muffin! Suitably spiffing!

The Importance of Being Earnest is on at the Manchester Opera House till the 17th March tickets available here.

 

Interview | Kerry Ellis | The Importance of Being Earnest

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Broadway and West End star Kerry Ellis arrives in Manchester next week with Oscar Wilde’s brilliant and hugely funny The Importance of Being Earnest in which she takes on the role of Gwendolen.

Starring alongside the legendary Gwen Taylor as the formidable Lady Bracknell, Susan Penhaligon as the luckless Miss Prism plus Downton Abbey favourite Thomas Howes as Algernon this will be Kerry’s first role in a straight play after an impressive and enormously successful 20 years in musical theatre.

We caught up with Kerry ahead of the show opening at Manchester’s Opera House on Tuesday 13th March to hear all about the play, her impressive career and her thoughts on taking on this new challenge.

ON: This is a real change for you, are you enjoying the experience?

KE: It’s the first play I’ve ever done really, I did do a short play with Trevor Nunn as a bit of a try out, but this is the first major play I’ve done and I’m really proud of it, I’m with a team of people who are just wonderful. Gwen Taylor is just a dream, the whole cast are great. To get to do an Oscar Wilde and a comedy as my first play has just been wonderful, I just love it. The audiences have been brilliant, it’s been very special so far, I’m absolutely loving it.

ON: Are you finding much difference between working on a straight play compared to a musical?

KE: Of course there’s the obvious with no music but yes it is quite different, with musicals there’s always so much going on, big sets and big ensembles, lots of music, songs to learn but with a play it’s literally you and your voice, your dialogue and just a few other people on stage with you. Essentially we’re doing the same thing and telling a story but it does feel quite different, we have different scenes which of course happens in both plays and musicals so the essence is the same but there’s definitely a difference.

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ON: From the production shots it appears the play will be traditionally staged are you enjoying wearing the costumes?

KE: They are stunning, they were made by Camden Costumes, they’ve all been tailor-made to us, the fabrics are amazing, the productions shots look great and show just how beautiful they are, I just feel very fortunate to wear them, the last time I wore costumes of this style was back when I was in My Fair Lady. My character Gwendolen is from a very well-to-do- family so they fit just perfectly with her character. The two dresses that I have are incredible and the hats, just phenomenal. Earnest does take me back to my My Fair Lady days as there definitely are some similar themes. What I love about this production is just how funny it is, the class system and the ridiculous things we do are to be laughed at, sitting in corsets drinking tea, it’s so silly really.

ON: You’re working with a hugely talented cast, have they offered any advice?

KE: Just watching them has been incredible, particularly Gwen who has just had her 79th birthday, I’m sure she won’t mind me sharing that information. To watch her work and be in a rehearsal room with somebody of such talent and experience and to watch her go through the same kind of things we all go through, the developments, the confidence on one night, the self-doubt on another night, seeing how she reacts to an audience, how much she cares about the show, watching her work has been very educational and I feel privledged to be in her presence. I know that probably sounds a bit cheesy but it really has been an incredible privilege to work with her.

ON: You’re celebrating 20 years what are you career highlights?

KE: There are so many, what’s interesting about doing this 20th anniversary tour is I didn’t even realise it had been 20 years, it was my manager who suggested calling it my 20th anniversary tour and I said ‘don’t be so ridiculous it can’t even be close to that’. Looking back over things I’ve done and asking audiences what they’ve seen me in and enjoyed it’s amazing what people come out with, things I’ve forgotten I’ve even done, I don’t know how I fitted everything in. I feel very fortunate that I’m still doing what I love doing and this anniversary tour is to celebrate that and to give something back to the people who have supported me over the years, I’m loving it. To do it alongside the play is wonderful.

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ON: What can audiences expect from your concert?

KE: A little bit of a trip down memory lane, there are some classics in there I can’t not sing Gravity and songs from We Will Rock You, but I am essentially singing lots of new things from my new Golden Days album. I’m also working on some new music with Frank Wildhorn who worked with Whitney Houston so there’s some of that in there so it’s really a celebration of then and what I’m doing now as well. I like to bring people new things and take them on a bit of a journey.

ON: After such an incredible 20 years in the industry do you have any advice for young performers?

KE: I feel very fortunate that I love doing what I do, I’ve made a passion for it and you have to as there are times like now when you’re touring and are away from your family, I’ve got two young boys so I’m away from them and my husband and I do have to make those sacrifices, you do have to love it and you have to make sacrifices for it, you have to have drive for it because it’s tough and it’s brutal and competitive and all of those things but it is the best job in the world. I don’t think you ever tire from hearing an audience reaction, people say it’s in your blood and I really do believe that. I was speaking to Brian May recently, we often talk when we’re on tour as we both understand how it feels, we were emailing the other night while he’s away in Australia and asking the silly little things like ‘how’s your hotel room?’ but it’s those things that really help when you’re away from your family.

ON: Are you looking forward to coming to Manchester?

Yes, I love Manchester, I was there not too long ago with Wonderland, I always have a great time there, the city is great, the people are wonderful and the theatres are fabulous, the shopping too of course is wonderful!

Tue 13 – Sat 17 March, Opera House tickets available here.

 

Wonderland

Wonderland Promo Image 2 Kerry Ellis

Not to be confused with the Blur frontman, Damon Alban’s musical that kicked off Manchester International Festival two years ago, Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy’s Wonderland is a new musical adaptation of two of Lewis Carroll’s classics – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass.

Having already enjoyed a stint on Broadway the show is on its UK and European premiere tour with an impressive cast that includes West End leading lady Kerry Ellis, musical theatre veteran Dave Willetts and former Coronation Street star Wendi Peters.

On paper Wonderland should be a sure-fire hit – it’s based on one of the most popular children’s stories of our time, the music is by a multi-award winning composer and you have Ellis, the woman who made Wicked’s Elphaba a hit in the UK at the helm.

Unfortunately it does not live up those expectations.

Wonderland

Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy have created a book for stage that sees Alice no longer a little girl but a 40 year old single Mum disillusioned with the cards life dealt her and wanting to escape the ‘real world’. Cue a visit to their high-rise block of flats from the White Rabbit (Dave Willetts) who takes her, her teenage daughter Ellie (Naomi Morris) and geeky love-struck neighbour Jack (Stephen Webb) down the lift shaft – a modern day rabbit hole –  into the frantic world of Wonderland.

Whilst Grace Smart’s costumes perfectly evoke the essence of Carroll’s creation with a melee of colours and craziness about them, Andrew Riley’s set however is sparse and changes very little throughout the performance with just additional props wheeled on, such as the Looking Glass and Mad Hatters’ Tea party table. I wanted a magical world to unfold beneath my eyes and be dazzled at the grandeur but it all felt a little flat.

There was magic however when it came to the performances. Kerry Ellis is just incredible to watch and her vocals exquisite, so too was Natalie McQueen as the Mad Hatter giving her just the right amount of zaniness and proving a perfect match for Ellis in their powerhouse duet This Is Who I Am. Wendi Peters also went down a treat with audiences for her portrayal of the Queen of Hearts and her number Off With Your Head left you wishing she had more time on stage to fully develop her character.

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Wonderland’s main flaw is that it makes you feel like you are watching a pantomime – there’s lots of fluff and not enough jeopardy to take the show seriously as a musical, which in reality is competing against the likes of other new creations such as Hamilton and Groundhog Day. At times I half expected the characters to address the audience and get them involved in the action. The production would be the perfect vehicle for Christmas time with its sickly sweet message of ‘not being afraid to be who you are inside’ being drummed down your throat at every stage but for now it needs more work on making the songs memorable and the story slick enough to turn it into a real contender.

Runs at the Palace Theatre, Manchester until Sunday 30th April

*Britain’s Got Talent’s Rachael Wooding will guest star as Alice for the Sunday matinée performance in Manchester.