AS an English literature graduate and a former A-level theatre studies student I am ashamed to say that I have never seen Oscar Wilde’s classic The Importance of Being Earnest performed live before.
I’ve read the play, I’ve watched the films, I’ve smirked and chuckled at the witticisms of the famous comedy of manners, but The Pantaloons’ touring production of the play is the first live theatrical version I’ve seen.
The company, consisting of five actors and a small creative team, performed their inimitable version of the quintessentially British play in a perfectly elegant and intimate corner of Arley Hall’s walled garden on Thursday evening - and as an introduction to a live version it was wonderful.
The Pantaloons promise to breathe life into such literary greats, give them a contemporary twist and fill them with energy.
And I can confirm that they fulfilled these promises.
The performance managed to convey the play’s 19th century upper class world and its hilarious whirlwind of mistaken identities while remaining down-to-earth and ever-conscious of its audience.
And the cast did so much with so little.
The set was the walled garden of Arley, which, by the way, was perfect for acoustics, the props were few (a silver serving platter, a few books and a couple of umbrellas, if memory serves) and the costume changes were little more than a wig, a false beard, a straw boater and a skirt.
Towards the end it was less than that as the actors relied more on their voices and body language to indicate their change of character - the lack of props became an extra joke for the audience to enjoy.
They self-consciously used comedy musical montages to travel in the play, signposting a new setting and new act to the audience.
They even provided a Hollywood-style recap after the interval to refresh bewildered memories, but mainly to make everyone giggle.
I often think that a sign of a good production is how well the cast and crew cope with adversity.
The Pantaloons coped so well I’m not sure that they didn’t write a lot of it in.
They began by explaining that their usual cast member Helen Taylor, who plays Gwendolin and Miss Prism, had been struck down by a terrible illness then introduced her understudy Kelly Griffiths who proceeded to read the lines from a clipboard.
Somehow this did not detract from her confident performance, which even included a spot of dancing.
And when they claimed the interval overran because of audience members queuing for refreshments, they took the opportunity for a spot of audience participation, which was then woven into a later part of the play.
Deliberate or not it worked very well and added to the enjoyment of the evening.
Each of the cast members, David Alwyn, who played Algernon and Dr Chasuble, Damian Cooper, who played Jack and Moulton, Martin Gibbons who managed to double frighteningly well as Lady Bracknell and Merriman, and Lucy Mellors, who played Cecily and Lane, as well as understudy Kelly Griffiths, performed equally brilliantly throughout the evening.
The interaction between each other and the audience broke down that traditional barrier between performer and spectator and made the play, a classic of the literary canon, accessible to all.