The Importance of Being Earnest

November 11, 2015 | By | Reply More

★★☆☆☆   Unconvincing

King’s Theatre: Tue 10-Sat 14 Nov 2015
Review by Hugh Simpson

There is a confused and apologetic air to the touring production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the King’s that the efforts of some distinguished performers cannot overcome.

Oscar Wilde’s 1895 comedy of role-playing and fictitious identities is, of course, often regarded as one of the classics of English theatre. Here, director Lucy Bailey seeks to put a contemporary spin on the play while using a star-studded cast of a certain age.

This is achieved by a framing device featuring the fictional Bunbury Company of Players, a Home Counties amateur dramatic group who are reviving their production of Earnest long after the cast members’ ages stopped being appropriate for their roles.

Cecily (Christine Kavanagh) interposes herself between Jack (Martin Jarvis) and Algernon (Nigel Havers). Photo: Tristram Kenton

Cecily (Christine Kavanagh) interposes herself between Jack (Martin Jarvis) and Algernon (Nigel Havers). Photo: Tristram Kenton

The only reason for this device seems to be to explain the choice of actors considerably older than normal. While a certain degree of praise must go to Simon Brett for his chutzpah in thinking that what the play has hitherto lacked is some of his own additional material, the result is truly unfortunate.

The framing scenes are clunky and lacking any profound insight into the play, theatre in general or the am-dram scene in particular.

Characters from the company are introduced at the start in a way that suggests this will be something like Michael Frayn’s Noises Off (a suspicion echoed by the fake programme-within-a-programme).

However, while Frayn’s work then uses what we learn about these characters to influence the on-stage action, here there is no such development, with the backstage members of the Bunbury Company seemingly being forgotten about.

Indeed, the framing device is largely abandoned in the second half of the production. That this is far superior to the first half shows how much of a handicap it is, as the relatively straight version of the play here is far superior to the leaden-footed opening.

enjoying themselves

It still isn’t great, however. Sian Phillips is a very good Lady Bracknell, while other actors playing closer to their own ages, such as Rosalind Ayres (Miss Prism) are perfectly acceptable. Gwendolyn (Carmen du Sautoy) and Cecily (Christine Kavanagh) gain something at times by being much older, with du Sautoy in particular always being interesting.

Nigel Havers. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Nigel Havers. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The best that can be said about Martin Jarvis and Nigel Havers as the duplicitous ‒ though essentially decent ‒ juvenile leads Jack and Algernon, is that they seem to be enjoying themselves. Their interactions are always pacy and the temptation to ham it up is usually resisted. The play is open to all kinds of reinterpretation ‒ the double existences led by the two young men have been seen as a comment on Wilde’s own life, for example. There could easily be an interesting version with a more mature cast, but the concept is introduced too ham-fistedly to work here.

The worst thing about it is how relatively unfunny it seems. While some of the original dialogue sparkles enough to elicit laughter, it is the sparkle of a diamond encased in mud, rather than the jewel it should be.

Jack’s claim that he is twenty-nine (when the actor is clearly more than double that) getting a bigger laugh than any of the lines that are meant to be funny, clearly shows something is sadly lacking.

William Dudley’s sturdy country house set is noteworthy; if the rest of the production is equally memorable, it is for the wrong reasons. Anyone who had not seen the play before would find the production pleasant enough but would surely struggle to see why it is so highly regarded a work, which is testament to how far this version misses the mark.

Running time 2 hours 25 mins including 1 interval
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ
Tuesday 10 – Saturday 14 November 2015
Evenings 7:30pm; Matinees Wed and Sat 2:30pm
Details and tickets from http://www.edtheatres.com/earnest

Tour details: http://www.earnesttheplay.co.uk/

The Importance of Being Earnest on tour:
10 – 14 Nov Edinburgh
Kings Theatre
0131 529 6000 Book online
17 – 21 Nov York
Grand Opera House
0844 871 3024 Book online
24 – 28 Nov Glasgow
Theatre Royal
0844 871 7647 Book online

ENDS

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