Writer: Oscar Wilde (with additional material by Simon Brett)
Director: Lucy Bailey
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
The Bunbury Company of Players loves The Importance of Being Earnest. They keep putting it on to the delight of their friends and neighbours in the village of Morton St Cuthbert. They love it so very much that their name is even taken from the famously non-existent character, Bunbury, in the play. According to the reviewers’ quotes in their programme, they have been performing it at least since 1970 and many of their number would seem to have been involved ever since, apparently playing the same parts each time. Indeed, the players seem to keep track of their productions by recalling with whom rakish leading man, Richard Oldfield was having an affair at the time.
And so we come to the Bunburys’ latest production, in which Bunbury stalwart, Anthony Scottney – a founder member of the society – both directs and plays Jack Worthing.
We join them at their dress rehearsal at the home of two of their number. Wilde’s action in each half is topped and tailed by additional material from Simon Brett, setting the scene for us. In the best traditions of amateur theatre, much is not quite right – the ages of the cast aren’t in keeping with their characters, costumes need running repairs, the crew will insist on eating the cucumber sandwiches. But they are a jolly bunch, clearly loving Wilde’s wordplay and each bringing their own twist to Wilde’s characters. They are soon into their stride and we forget they are supposedly amateurs until we see some dissonance between their actions and those of their characters.
It’s not totally clear why Brett and director Lucy Bailey have chosen to present The Importance of Being Earnest as a play-within-a-play in this way. It does offer some lovely comedic moments, for example when Scottney, white-haired and clearly in his 60s at the very least, as Worthing sheepishly admits to Lady Bracknell to being 29. And seeing them trying to recreate a garden inside a grand sitting room, lovingly created by designer William Dudley, brings some amusement. The interplay between these characters, woven into Wilde’s original, does bring new laughs, and adds some additional barbs to Wilde’s attacks on a largely materialistic society in which income and standing are the most important aspects in determining the suitability of a man for marriage. But Wilde’s sparkling dialogue stands alone in standing the test of time – the stream of laughs from this audience is testament to that – and his social commentary remains sharp.
Nevertheless, Bailey’s direction ensures that both the Bunburys’ production and ours rattle along. The cast led by Siân Phillps (an object lesson in playing Lady Bracknell), Nigel Havers (wonderfully irreverent as Moncrieff) and Martin Jarvis (a somewhat pompous but lovable Jack Worthing) demonstrate impeccable comic timing and some lovely physical moments. It is largely their efforts, together with Carmen Du Sautoy’s Gwendolen and Christine Kavanagh’s Cecily, that drive the action. The scene in which Gwendolen and Cecily first meet, become firm friends, sworn enemies and then allies within minutes is beautifully realised in its serious triviality in the hands of Du Sautoy and Kavanagh. Wilde’s original plot – a construction of unlikely coincidence, mistaken identity, true love and social manners – allows him to satirise the upper classes and show off his famous wit that still sparkles today.
Overall, a very enjoyable evening with Wilde’s characters. The laughs come thick and fast reflecting the continuing freshness of Wilde’s satire. Worth making the effort to see on its current tour.
Runs until 3 October 2015 | Image: Tristram Kent