Director: Alastair Whatley
Writer: Oscar Wilde
Reviewer: Helen Tope
There are few writers who can boast such a reputation as Oscar Wilde. His death in 1900, after a spectacular fall from grace, is a story so compelling it almost eclipses his impressive list of credits – almost.
An Ideal Husband, Lady Windermere’s Fan, The Importance of Being Earnest takes top billing, and with good reason. Stuffed with the kind of one-liners comedy writers dream of, Wilde’s play pretends to be all surface and no substance, but we know better than that.
The story of men-about-town Algernon Moncrieff and his pal Jack Worthing, serves as a launchpad for Wilde’s most brilliant work. Jack desires to marry Gwendolen Fairfax; Algernon with his taste for country and town adventure, has his heart set on meeting Jack’s 18-year-old ward, Cecily Cardew.
But one mishap follows another, lines become crossed and connections are very nearly undone. It takes the identification of a piece of hand luggage to resolve matters in a pleasing and neat conclusion.
What jumps out in this production is how Wilde wrote great parts for women, from the ingénue to the matriarch. As the indomitable Lady Bracknell, Gwen Taylor revels in the classic Bracknell lines, although undersells the ‘handbag’ moment. Taylor grasps the multi-layered existence of women like Lady Bracknell, and how social etiquette could be used as a weapon. The performance just needs a little more edge from Taylor to make the role fire and crackle.
As Algernon, Thomas Howes is playful and perhaps the most comfortable in his role. Peter Sandys-Clarke as Jack has a nervy start, but his chemistry with Howes builds and develops through the performance.
Kerry Ellis (Gwendolen) may be more familiar to audiences for her extensive background in musical theatre, but her arch, knowing flirtation with Jack is pitch-perfect for Wilde. Ellis gets the rhythm of the lines just right. Not too fast, but fast enough.
Wilde’s play – over 120 years old – has lost none of its bite. The Importance of Being Earnest offers up a master-class in the importance of winning over an audience. Wilde does this by never talking down to us. We would like to think of ourselves as more clued-up than our late-Victorian counterparts, but in the clarity of the phrasing and delivery, there can be no doubt that Wilde expected his audience equally capable of decoding the fine art of Bunburying.
The Importance of Being Earnest is subversion in plain sight: it’s all part of the game. ‘Earnest’, despite its age, remains an astonishingly sophisticated comedy. Everyone laughs at everyone else. It strikes at the heart of what makes Wilde endure: he understood human frailty from the inside out. It’s what made him a great writer, even if frailty, in the end, got the final word.
This production may not rewrite the rules on how to present Wilde, but it performs a great service in reminding us of how watchable his work really is. The Importance of Being Earnest is the ultimate comedy of errors; as sharp and brilliant as its creator.
Runs until 17 February 2018 | Image: Contributed