To Hell in a Handbag at Bewleys Café Theatre – Review by P McGovern
Until July 22nd at 1pm
Forget the Hell bit of the title; this show isn’t a gloomy, philosophical survey of the human condition. We’ve had enough of that lately. Just think “a handbag…”, now you’ve got it. Yes, it’s an offshoot of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, specifically “the secret lives of Canon Chasuble and Miss Prism”. And such secrets, such dark and damnable, big fat ones like you’d never imagine.
The show, developed by Helen Norton and Jonathan White (who play Prism and Chasuble) as part of Show in a Bag in 2016, shows yet again what a rich source of ideas and energy that project proved to be. As with Friel’s and Stoppard’s plays, based on characters from Chekhov and Shakespeare respectively, Norton and White have crafted their two-hander around Wilde’s masterpiece, “The Importance of Being Earnest”. It is clearly a work of love, a homage to the great original, and it is a considerable compliment to say that it does Wilde proud. The setting, the language and the acting style are exactly right, the show fizzles with fun and wit and will send you out of the theatre with a lighter step and a grin on your face.
Language and plot are a delightful mix of near-lifts from the original, to keep us on track, and a lot of originality. What starts out as a casual stroll in the garden of Lord Woolton draws us into a labyrinth of twists and turns, confessions, revelations and discoveries, assumed and discarded personae that retain our attention and would be the envy of many a seasoned playwright. There is a disappearing island in the South China Sea that no-one has ever heard of until Chasuble started fundraising to help its inhabitants. Who is Cuthbert Stanhope? Can an only child have a brother? (In this play, well, it’s possible). What do you do with a valuable stamp collection that was left to you – or at least left with you, admittedly not quite the same thing? What possible moral justification can there be for blackmail? And as for the skills required for a successful agony aunt…
White and Norton play the parts delightfully deadpan, delivering Wildean aphorisms with perfect timing and diction. Norton’s reading from the typescript of her work-in-progress is just one of many hilarious moments while White is impeccable as her unwitting, shall we say, prey. Conor Hanratty directs with a sure hand, keeping pace and style just right.
The audio recording of a few minutes from Wilde’s original play, over a loudspeaker on an empty stage, works well at the beginning, but when repeated at the end it seems a superfluous imposition, added just to shape or structure the show. This, however, is scarcely worth mentioning in this wonderfully entertaining show – in air-conditioned comfort, a great plus for this weather. It would be a pity to miss it as it continues its run, daily at 1 pm until July 22nd.