Writer: Oscar Wilde
Director: Nikolai Foster
Reviewer: Laura Jayne Bateman
The Importance of Being Earnestopened in London in 1895 to immense critical acclaim, and has rarely been absent from British stages since. This new production from Curve Leicester injects the frothy storyline with fizzing life, and features strong performances throughout the ensemble cast.
Opening in a London bachelor pad, the serious, high-minded John ‘Jack’ Worthing pays a visit to his caddish friend, Algernon Moncrieff. It is discovered that John has been masquerading as a man named Ernest, and frequently escapes from the sobriety of his country pile on the pretence of visiting his non-existent brother. John is hopelessly in love with Miss Gwendolen Fairfax, Algernon’s cousin, but is refused her hand in marriage by her overbearing mother, Lady Bracknell. One by one the characters escape to the country, where Algernon encounters John’s charming ward, Cecily, and it is finally established who exactly John is.
The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the finest examples of a comedy of manners, but it also has dry and often direct comments to make on the state of British society. The role of women, social status and the importance of family are all key themes within the play, and director Nikolai Foster is adept at drawing out both the play’s politics and its triviality. After a slow first act, the energy levels pick up considerably with the transition to the country, and Foster makes an inspired choice in his placement of the interval.
It is Wilde’s loveable, larger-than-life characters that really animate the play, and there are universally excellent performances throughout the cast. Fela Lufadeju is suitably pompous as John, although he occasionally speaks a little too quickly, and Martha Mackintosh turns in a highly sophisticated performance as Gwendolen, with a divine vocal tone. Cathy Tyson initially seems rather subdued as the battle-axe Lady Bracknell, but gives an unusually truthful reading of a character who is so often played for laughs. Angela Clerkin and Dominic Gately are perhaps a little too goofy as Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble, though they deliver the text well, and there is a delightfully detailed performance from Darren Bennett in the dual roles of butlers Lane and Merriman. But it is Edward Franklin as Algernon and Sharan Phull as Cecily who steal the show; theirs are gems of comic performances, and their chemistry is electric. Foster directs their scenes, which could so easily become twee, with a light and careful hand, and they are some of the strongest in the production.
Elsewhere, Isla Shaw’s impressive set is a star in its own right, enclosing the cast in a huge hall of mirrors that reflects the action of the play back onto the audience. Ben Cracknell lights the space with immense skill, and sound designer Dan Hoole has put together a cheery, contemporary soundtrack. Several of the costumes lack the extravagance associated with Wilde, but the art nouveau furniture is suitably luxurious.
The Importance of Being Earnest is so often staged that it can be difficult to keep the text fresh, or even to elicit laughs from an audience. Curve’s production copes well with these challengesand delivers an effervescent, heart-warming and unique production of Wilde’s revered work.
Runs until 29 October 2016 |Image:Tom Wren