The Importance of Being Earnest – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Writer: Oscar Wilde
Director: Nikolai Foster
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Does Wilde’s witty masterpiece have anything new left to say to 21stCentury theatregoers having been regularly performed and revived in the years since its first performances at the tail end of the 19th?

In this Birmingham REP and Curve, Leicester co-production, director Nikolai Foster and designer Isla Shaw certainly think so in their incarnation. Wilde undoubtedly holds a mirror to the society of the time, ruthlessly exposing its superficiality and holding that up to ridicule. Shaw’s startling set certainly does that too – with floor, walls and ceiling all made of mirrors, one is disoriented on entering the REP’s expansive auditorium. It’s not at all obvious where the back and sides of the already large stage are, giving a feeling of the set going on forever. With no obvious ways onto the stage, the cast seem to appear and disappear quite suddenly as doors magically open and close.

Even without the illusion that the mirrors provide, this is a large space and needs similarly large performances to fill and dominate it, especially during the sequences where two or three characters spar verbally with one another. In the slower first half with its long convoluted sentences, this doesn’t always totally come off, with characters declaiming Wilde’s lines, albeit with fine comic timing as the relationships between our protagonists are set up. After the interval, however, this old girl lifts her skirts and veritably charges to her conclusion, albeit with the help of some pretty far-fetched coincidences much to Lady Bracknell’s displeasure.

It is apt that the most sympathetic characters turn out not to be of the aristocracy but the more minor parts of Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble. Their mutual attraction is clear from the off in their body language and awkward flirting. Angela Clerkin’s mobile face and body demonstrate clearly Miss Prism’s urge to be with Chasuble; Dominic Gately’s Chasuble is similarly ungainly as he tries to maintain the dignity of his office in the face of madness all around.

As the play gets into its stride, the superficiality and hypocrisy of the characters is well used to make Wilde’s comic points. The scenes in which the objects of the boys’ desires, Gwendolen Fairfax (Martha Mackintosh) and Cecily Cardew (Sharan Phull) meet for the first time and become by turns best friends and then hissing snakes and in which Cecily and Algy (Edward Franklin) discuss their engagement are beautifully done with perfect timing – object lessons both in comic theatre. Franklin’s Algy really comes to life in the second half as his self-centred childishness is revealed quite ruthlessly and to great comic effect until he unexpectedly falls in love. Some real comedy gold here.

Cathy Tyson’s Lady Bracknell is, as required, dominating sailing serenely like a battleship leaving others struggling to stay afloat in her monumental wake. Her ability to switch between warmth and cold derision (and back) based on one’s social background and wealth is well-observed. This comes to the fore firstly in the famous scene in which Jack Worthing (Fela Lufadeju) is forced to admit he doesn’t know his origins having been found in a handbag at a station and even more pointedly as she quickly adjusts her attitude towards Cecily as a potential family member on hearing of her fortune – quite superb. Lufadeju’s portrayal of the slightly priggish Worthing is workaday, contrasting with his snappy dressing.

Quietly maintaining a dignified presence is Darren Bennett in the dual roles of the town and country butlers. As Lane, Algy’s butler, there is the distinct feeling he has been influenced by the inimitable Jeeves. Merriman, Worthing’s butler, is more animated, nay camp, in his demeanour. In both roles he provides a nice counterpoint to the action between the principal characters.

A fine performance of a theatrical classic.

Runs until 24 September 2016 | Image:Tom Wren

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