THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 21st October, 2014
A glance at the cast list for this touring production leads one to think, ungallantly, that they’re all a bit, well, long in the tooth for Oscar Wilde’s comedy about a pair of young Lotharios. The company is evidently aware of how they will be perceived and so the Wilde play is framed within another play about a bunch of middle class amateur thesps gathering for a rehearsal of The Importance in somebody’s house. I remember Hinge and Bracket doing something similar yonks ago.
And so, in fits and starts the “Bunbury Players” present the opening act. In sub-Noises Off fashion things go wrong on and off stage, only here instead of sardines it’s cucumber sandwiches that go astray. I appreciate why this framing story (written by Simon Brett) might be necessary but it’s excruciating and gets in the way of dear old Oscar’s genius. Where this production comes alive is when they let Wilde have his head and scenes are performed with vim and gusto uninterrupted by contrived ‘mistakes’.
Nigel Havers is at home in either play as the womanising Dicky who plays Algernon. It’s the kind of smarm and charm that has become his trademark and there is even a hint of sending himself up. With Martin Jarvis as a white-haired but nevertheless energetic Jack Worthing (supposedly 29 years old) there is some very funny verbal sparring. We overlook their advanced years and enjoy the play for itself.
Sian Phillips makes a formidable Lady Bracknell, while Cherie Lunghi convinces as young Gwendolen, up against Christine Kavanagh’s spirited Cecily. Some of the comic business director Lucy Bailey has them do is a little heavy-handed. Wilde should be kept frothy but barbed.
Niall Buggy is a treat as Reverend Chasuble to Rosalind Ayres’s neurotic Miss Prism.
After the interval, the ‘interruptions’ no longer trouble us but there remains an abiding sense of tension that at any minute, something ‘hilarious’ will ‘go wrong’ and deflate the delicious soufflé the actors are working hard to create.
Mercifully, it doesn’t and every member of the cast proves there is not only life but talent and ability in this pack of old dogs. The result is an amusing evening with the biggest laughs going to Wilde’s dazzling epigrams, but I would prefer it if they hadn’t pandered to ageism and just played it ‘straight’.