There’s artifice in town and artlessness in the countryside in Giles Croft’s nicely understated production at the Playhouse. The characters look and behave in quite different ways, so the affected and really quite loathsome Algernon (Hywel Morgan) and Jack (Sam Callis) become almost likeable chaps when they’re Bunburying in the sunshine and substance of the country house and garden.
It’s most apparent in the distinction between the stiffly contained Gwendolen (Rokhsaneh Ghawam-Shahidi), whose corsets suppress the vamp she’d clearly like to be, and Anjli Mohindra’s Cecily, a sunny, confident, modern young woman with ideas of her own and an easy relationship with her governess. Even Miss Prism succumbs to this environment and readily takes off with Dr Chasuble.
Only Lady Bracknell is the same in both settings. She is magnificently and roundly played by Joanna Brookes, who has Mrs Malaprop in her repertoire and who brings something of both Sheridan and Jane Austen to the role but stops short of making Lady Bracknell a complete figure of fun. Her body language is a delight. ‘Handbag’ is a word she can scarcely bring herself to utter, and her voice can drop to stentorian in an instant.
Croft chooses a more naturalistic way of reading the dialogue that doesn’t flag up or draw attention to the puns. That’s refreshing in a way but its downside is that those familiar with the text aren’t able to savour the prospect of a delicious line to come, while those less familiar with it miss a laugh.