The Importance of Being Earnest – Vaudeville Theatre, London

Writer: Oscar Wilde

Director:Michael Fentimen

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

At the end of Classic Spring’s year-long Oscar Wilde season, this final show has this phrase, taken from The Importance of Being Earnest, emblazoned across the safety curtain: ‘If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out’. The fourth of Wilde’s plays to be staged by Dominic Dromgoole’s company, following A Woman of No Importance, Lady Windermere’s Fan and An Ideal Husband, yet the truth is that this production is an underwhelming conclusion to a season that has failed to deliver anything really new.

Easily the most famous of Wilde’s plays, even if you’ve never seen The Importance of Being Earnest, may of its lines – particularly an expostulation about a handbag – will be familiar. Society friends Algernon and Jack discover each other’s excuses to escape their relatives; Algernon pretends to have a friend called Bunbury and Jack an errant brother called Earnest, except in town Jack is known as Earnest. When a possible engagement threatens to expose them both, everyone decamps to the country where, thanks to the intervention of a vicar, a governess and a lot of muffins, unexpected truths are revealed.

This production takes a farcical play and tries to make it as silly as possible, adding as much physical humour and over the top performances as the company can cram into two hours and thirty minutes. There is an assumption that audiences will come already knowing the play, so, in trying to find something new, almost every actor delivers their lines at high-speed, playing to the next laugh. It makes for a fast-moving show, but in trying to fit whole speeches into a single breath, the joy of Wilde’s language, the carefully constructed music of it is entirely lost.

And everyone seems quite angry all the time. While there is plenty of pointed conversation between various characters, the tone here has considerably more bitterness than often played. Most of the encounters between Algernon and Jack are highly antagonistic, even in the first Act, which leaves the actors nowhere to go when they really cross each other in Act Two, while the sweet and charming Cecily spits out her lines with venom and not even the pretence of social veneer that Wilde implies.

The Company has also made some curious decisions that undermine the show’s cohesion. Why, for example, is Algernon seen to openly kiss a young man at his piano and later his Butler, Lane, in Act One? The allusion to Wilde himself is all very well, but how is the audience to believe that he then falls madly for Cecily in Act Two? Similarly, Jack’s rather meaningful statement about childhood neglect and the sombre approach to the final revelation are more naturalistic portrayed, and Madeleine Girling’s second Act garden has a Chekhovian feel, but the clash this creates with the exaggerated physical comedy of the rest is never quite resolved and feels unsatisfactory.

To perform Wilde well, actors need to trust the rhythm of the line. It doesn’t need extra help to make it funny, the humour is already there in the phraseology, and part of the problem with this production is that everyone is trying too hard all the time. Sophie Thompson chews the scenery as Lady Bracknell, deep-voiced and, with large gaps between every word, gives a particularly overstated performance.

Fehinti Balogun’s sexual experimental Algernon is a little unvarying, but seems more comfortable in the later scenes, Jeremy Swift plays Reverend Chasuble with a pitchy George Formby voice, while Fiona Button’s Cecily is a more aggressive interpretation that only really hits the mark in the very funny confrontation with Pippa Nixon’s Gwendolen in the country garden.

Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s permanently exasperated but likeable Jack, and Stella Gonet’s subtle Miss Prism have the most natural feel for the lines, with both delivering engaging and sympathetic performances that cut through the surrounding confusion. The Importance of Being Earnest may be Wilde’s best-known play, but this forgettable version ends a season that that has, in truth, delivered some good performances but very little insight.

Runs Until 20 October 2018 | Image: Contributed

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One Comment

  1. I agree with most of this though I’m more inclined than you to give them credit for trying something different even if I don’t think it’s a resounding success. Unlike you, I was happy to see sturdy, well-acted versions of the other three plays because (with the possible exception of Lady Windermere’s Fan) they aren’t at all well known. The Importance of Being Earnest is a different matter. It must be staged at least as often as all the others combined so a conventional production is, while not entirely without merit, of less use. That said, this is probably the weakest production of the season with, in my opinion, the only outstanding acting performance coming from Stella Gonet as Miss Prism. I’m still glad to have seen the whole season (highlight surely An Ideal Husband but with some very memorable performances in all plays.

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