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The Importance of Being Earnest (Vaudeville Theatre)

This is the version of Wilde’s play which is being publicised heavily because of the casting of David Suchet as Lady Bracknell, and if this feels like stunt casting (it isn’t really, he isn’t the first man to put on the dress and give the immortal handbag line), I’m pleased to say it has paid off.

A sparking comedy of manners, this production by Adrian Noble, former RSC artistic director, sizzles with energy and benefits from an excellent pair of performances from newcomer Emily Barber as Gwendolyn and the hilarious mugger Imogen Doel as Cecily.

Playing as broadly as the script allows, their garden scene is a hoot and Barber’s reaction to the marriage proposal in Act One is hugely entertaining.  Doel’s Cecily is a fiery child not to be trifled with, and her clumsy flirting is seriously scary!

As the two gentlemen who use deceit to enable themselves to have good times, Michael Benz as Jack and Philip Cumbus (last seen in the Trafalgar Studio Richard III as Richmond) as Algy are thoroughly modern chaps who fight over muffins and become lovelorn at the slightest opportunity.

Michele Dotrice and Richard O’Callagan are a fine Prism and Chasuble, a veritable comedy team fairly quivering with unsuppressed attraction.  In their hands the final reconciliation ‘at last’ is believeable, and her twittering delight at the prospect of a stroll is hilarious.

This leaves us with Suchet’s Lady B.  His is a frightful caricature, with exaggerated expressions and reactions which liven up her first interrogation of Jack in particular, with the slow opening of the black book, the shudder of distate about railway stations, and the look of distain she gives her daughter’s intended suitor.  It’s a performance which is just a step back from the pantomime dame, but it richly mines the comic potential of this greatest of female characterisations.

In Act Three his return bodes a change from the ‘gorgon’ to something softer, as this Aunt Augusta has a past of poverty and a marriage based on money, not love, and there may be just a little bit of regret when all ends happily without a thought for her, an essentially nouveau riche vulgar harridan whose exaggeration comes out of insecurity.

It’s an interesting take on the story in a production which is not perfect, but which is effortlessly entertaining, from David Killick’s snipey Lane through to Brendan Hooper’s Merriman (which an air of resignation whether ordering a dog cart or serving cake at tea).


Importance of Being Earnest (Richmond Theatre), review

Lucy Bailey’s re-imagining of Oscar Wilde’s classic play comes to Richmond Theatre direct from the West End and a short tour which has stopped at Bath, Brighton, Aylesbury, and finally comes to a stop at Birmingham next week.  Reviews have not been kind to the ‘Bunbury Players’ who have put on this show.

But just a moment – let’s take a step back.  The conceit of this production is that it is now a play within a play – an ageing group of amateur players putting on a dress rehearsal of their long-running version of the ‘Importance’ in the sitting room of George (who plays the roles of Lane and Merriman), and Lavinia (Lady Bracknell).  So you get funny, but rather unnecessary bookending segments written by Simon Brett

The actors are so much older than those usually playing the parts, they practically creak along – Martin Jarvis at 72 plays Jack Worthing, Nigel Havers, ten years younger, is Algernon Moncrieff.  Cherie Lunghi as Gwendolen and Christina Kavanagh as Cecily are certainly mature, while at 81, Sian Phillips has a last hurrah as emoting the ‘handbag’ line.  I only mention the ages because they play up to them – it doesn’t actually matter once the play proper gets going.

Some reviews have stated that if you love Wilde’s play, you will hate this, but not so.  I found it an affectionate spoof which is genuinely funny, and which does not damage the fabric of the play that much – it doesn’t matter that Gwendolen’s costume splits and needs to be sewn by the costume lady during the scene, or that cucumber sandwiches arrive just in time for Lane’s ‘not even for ready money’ line.  Giggles do come from Havers’ Algy having to change out of trainers into slippers mid-speech, or his ingratiating winks at the audience.

I especially liked the interplay between Lunghi and Kavanagh in the garden scene, which makes this scene sharp and fresh, while Rosalind Ayres is fun as Miss Prism, all twitches and wide-eyed mock innocence, and Niall Buggy as the drunken actor who suddenly morphs into the clearly enunciating vicar is fine.  Patrick Godfrey as George/Lane may be more interested in the test match scores but those of us who remember the 2002 film know he can play the dual manservant roles standing on his head.  Here he just has fun.

The programme, too, entertains, with a spoof set of biographies and adverts.  Delightful.

I’d have a laugh watching the Bunbury Players do this play, were they real, but as they are not, I enjoyed watching this group of veterans gently joshing Wilde’s characters into sharp relief.  I would not have let the play go on beyond Wilde’s famous final line, though.


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