Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Day 194: An Ideal Husband Play Review

I attended an Oxford student play last night, An Ideal Husband (my husband asked me while coming home if the play was about him...), for which I wrote the following review:

I have now left two Oxford student plays early. After my perfect-relative-pitch ears were accosted for the nth time with flatly-sung “Marias” and poor Chicano dancing and acting, I walked out on last year's performance of West Side Story early. However, my early departure from last night's performance of An Ideal Husband at OFS was anything but voluntary. I had simply not anticipated the play requiring three hours of time (theatre-goers be warned), and had a bus to catch for London. I was gripped by the performance and very much wanted to stay for the duration.

The play was not without its faults, however. It was slow to warm up. I braced myself when the over-acting (and as an American, am I allowed to call any English accent strained?) butler asked us, in keeping with the period, to turn off our cell phones before the play began. The play thereafter opened with a confusing cacophony of accents, dress, and nervous acting. I was distracted by the many comings and goings of various sets of actors—something I felt could have been solved by better staging—and by inconsistent costuming, hairstyles, and unnecessary accessories. Mrs. Cheveley's costumes throughout seemed particularly out of place, as if the dresses were made in 2006 rather than 1896. I also wanted people to take off their matching hats (as in, two characters on stage at the same time were wearing the same hat in two colours), gloves, and wraps when inside. The hairstyles seemed particularly out of place: the curlers in Mabel's hair and the excessive messiness of the other female actor's hair seemed out of keeping with tidy Victorian curls, bouffants, and buns. Was there no period research done, or no hairstylists and makeup artists (Mabel, who is suppose to be an “example of English prettiness” seemed not to be wearing any) backstage to assist the actors?

Despite these easily-fixed technical difficulties and a noticeably nervous start, the play was a great success. I was engaged and largely convinced by the acting, particularly that of Mrs. Cheveley and Lord Goring. Even the butler had wonderful moments of silent, comic relief. The well-written, witty script, but for a few stumbles, was masterfully delivered and intelligible, even for an American unaccustomed to many of the subtler English undertones. I was most impressed with Mabel, who was a last-minute (as in, she had a day to learn her part) stand-in (the initially-cast Mabel was detained by volcanic ash travel delays), entertained by Lady Markby's incoherent ramblings, charmed by Lord Goring, and captivated by Mrs. Cheveley. Although I wanted him to stand up straight and claim his title with ease, Lord Chiltern's fine acting convinced me to feel sorry for him. The actress with whom I struggled most was Lady Chiltern, who seemed only half-convinced she could be so uncharitable, and whose teary outburst left a little to be wanted. The only thing she lacks, however, is confidence: she has all the qualities necessary to make a great actress.

This is a play well worth its entrance fee and hours spent watching it—all three of them. I give it my solid recommendation.

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