Event review: CODA Croydon performs ‘The Importance Of Being Earnest’ in Wandle Park bandstand, 15th-18th July 2015

By - Friday 17th July, 2015

Rosie Edser goes Wilde in the park

Photo by CODA, used with permission.

Last year Croydon Operatic and Dramatic Association’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was performed successfully in the open air of the newly landscaped Wandle Park. Given that the entire first half of Oscar Wilde’s “trivial comedy for serious people”, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, takes place indoors, it doesn’t seem the most obvious choice for CODA’s second open air theatre performance – until you reach the sparkling second half, which is almost all set outside.

I doubt that the urban oasis that is Wandle Park often doubles as the grounds of a stately home in Hertfordshire, but as the sun sets and the occasional bat flits past, it completely works. The satisfaction of watching Cecily actually pick a rose for Algernon’s button-hole while the cast actually brush past your knees in the real gardens adds a whole extra dimension to the experience. Next week, when they have all packed up and gone, I shall pop over to that pink rose bush in the flower bed on the lake-ward side of the bandstand, count the blooms that remain and savour the sheer absurdity of Wilde’s satirical comedy. If there aren’t any joggers passing at that moment, I might even have a go at the handbag line.

Cecily and Gwendolen execute some delightful synchronised back-turning

I’m glad that Cecily does actually get to water the thirsty plants, as when you analyse the play, you notice it’s all about situation and dialogue with very little for the actors to actually do, other than gesticulate suitably while delivering Wilde’s harsh and wry one-liners about marriage, money and society. True, large amounts of cucumber sandwiches and crumpets get consumed at various points (mainly by Algernon), tea is poured into a range of elegant china cups, Cecily (Rebecca Lyons) and Gwendolen (Samantha Leitch) execute some delightful synchronised turning of their backs and John Worthing gets down on his knees on more than one occasion, but action-packed it ain’t.

Which is why you need to take along a flask of Earl Grey tea instead of spending too much cash in the interval bar tent – if your mind takes those extra moments to unravel the subtle Wilde witticisms, you’ll be chuckling too late to hear the next perfectly timed shaft.

There are plenty of chuckles elicited by a very likeable cast, although the director wasn’t wrong when he wrote of the actors bringing interpretations never seen before. Seldom can there have been a young footman as sarcastic as Alfie Bird. And for once the splendidly attired Lady Bracknell didn’t immediately conjure the adjective ‘formidable’. Vicky Watkins’ rendering was warmer than Dame Judi’s and (perhaps unsurprisingly) more maternal than David Suchet.

I relished every flirtatious and judgemental line

The sartorially splendid Algernon (Peter Davis) was camp, cheerful and very tall (which added humour to the ‘little’ Cecily references) and Paul Grace’s good natured John Worthing engaged equally with all four directions of the audience. I relished every flirtatious and judgmental line delivered by a very assured and amusing Sarah H Gordon as Miss Prism, and Doctor Chasuble (Peter Bramwell) – who wins the prize for most time spent strolling in the grounds – has clearly done an awful lot of this kind of thing before.

Image by CODA Croydon, used with permission.

The down sides were the inconsiderately passing trains, trams and aeroplanes, the programme being printed in some awful font which consists entirely of capital letters, and a couple of first-night mis-speakings and minor microphone moments, which make me think that strong wind rather than rain would be the most challenging weather scenario for the performance. Oh yes – and the entire audience getting to the park exit afterwards and finding we had been locked in! I took the gate climb-over option; presumably someone official turned up with a key to release the more senior audience members at some point…

So get yourself a ticket, pack into your capacious handbag a jumper, some insect repellent and that flask of tea, sharpen your wits and pick your seat for a highly civilised treat in a beautiful and quirky setting. I can see exactly why CODA has been entertaining the people of Croydon for 70 years and why they chose to do it this time in a bandstand.

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Rosie Edser

Rosie Edser

Rosie is a member of the team at Croydon Refugee Daycentre. She's a teacher of both adult English learners and (in her day job) children. She relishes the fact that her own offspring have attended a school in Croydon with over forty first languages spoken. She lives in Waddon.

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