Tuesday 7 July 2015

Theatre review: The Importance of Being Earnest

Productions of The Importance of Being Earnest aren't exactly a rarity - in fact the last West End outing was only a year ago, and it didn't even do particularly good business. So it's a show I don't feel compelled to catch any given production of as the next one will be along soon enough. But I last saw it at the Old Vic, which a quick google reveals to have been twenty years ago, so I figured it was time to give it another go in Adrian Noble's production, which has settled into the Vaudeville for the summer. There's famously far too many roles available for older women - it's something like that, right? - so David Suchet has stepped in to ease the workload by taking on the role of Lady Bracknell, the archetypal formidable aunt. In another outrageous bit of casting, the show also stars Philip Cumbus, meaning not only is he missing a Globe summer season in an odd-numbered year for the first time since his first season in 2007, he's also missing his beard.

Cumbus plays Algernon, Lady Bracknell's nephew and one of two men pretending to be Ernest, the non-existent brother of Jack Worthing (Michael Benz.) The other is Jack himself, and both men are courting women with an odd attraction to any man called Ernest.

The object of Jack's affection is Gwendolen (Emily Barber,) Lady Bracknell's daughter, while Algernon falls instantly for Jack's ward, the heiress Cecily Cardew (Imogen Doel.) But both the girls' families will have reasons to object to the matches, in Oscar Wilde's at-the-time revolutionary comedy of manners, smart-arsed quips and mistaken identity. Noble's production is a very traditional but straightforward one, complete with two intervals to change Peter McKintosh's solid sets.

I can't really condone the fact that one of the most famous roles for an older actress has been given to a man even as controversy rages about the unevenness of roles available to the sexes. But at least Suchet delivers a strong performance as the play's most famous character, not going for out-and-out camp but instead simply looking like he's having the time of his life in the role, and making his enthusiasm infectious. Lady Bracknell is unusual in that no other role can be so bound up in not only a single line, but a single delivery of it, as this part is with Edith Evans' "A handbag?", so everyone who takes on the role is under scrutiny to see how they'll make it their own: Suchet opts to throw it away with an embarrassed chuckle.

In fact The Importance of Being Earnest suffers in general from a surfeit of famous one-liners, and I could spot some people in the audience sitting up in anticipation as they approached. But Philip Cumbus is an actor who can bring freshness and energy to any role, and his louche, physical and silly Algernon steals the show even with a dragged-up star turn present; he and Doel's demented Cecily are the stronger of the two romantic couples, although Barber also gives some nice suggestions that Gwendolen's total transformation into her mother won't be too long in coming. This isn't an adventurous production but it does show off Wilde's comedy in a good light. I think the play's too frothy and familiar to get revived as frequently as it does, but if like me you give it a healthy break its charms can become apparent again.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde is booking until the 7th of November at the Vaudeville Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including two intervals.

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