The Importance of Being Earnest

Posted by Laurence Green

Laurance reviews Lucy Bailey’s new production at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

The Importance of Being Earnest

It may have seemed like a good idea at the outset – a reimagined take on Oscar Wilde’s great 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest, set within the framework of an amateur theatre group where most of the players are almost the same age as Lady Bracknell, but the result turns into a pale shadow of the original as Lucy Bailey’s new production at the Harold Pinter Theatre all too clearly demonstrates.

As the curtain rises we are introduced to a troupe of ageing actors called The Bunbury Players during their final rehearsal of The Importance of Being Earnest. The rehearsal is being held in the Arts and Crafts home of Lawinia who plays Lady Bracknell and her husband George who takes on the servant roles but keeps popping out to potter about his garden.

Eventually the back story fades and the play within a play begins. Two bachelors, the dependable John Worthing JP and upper class playboy Algernon Moncrieff feel compelled to create different identities in order to pursue two eligible ladies Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax. The misadventures which ensue from this subterfuge, their brushes with the redoubtable Lady Bracknell and the uptight Miss Prism form the backbone of the plot.

The first half hour of Wilde’s play is virtually ruined by unfunny gags about missing props, fluffed entrances and incomplete costumes and by this time I was growing impatient waiting for the real play to begin. It is as if director Lucy Bailey was trying to recreate the success of Michael Frayn’s hilarious comedy, Noises Off, but that did not have any particular play as its centrepiece.

As a result the play trivialises Wilde’s sharp satire on class, money, marriage, morals and the hypocrisies of Victorian society. The tiresome new material written by Simon Brett only serves to emphasise the contrast with Wilde’s polished and witty dialogue.

Interesting Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis who played bachelors-about-town Algernon Moncrieff and John Worthing in Peter Hall’s NT production some thirty years ago are reprising their roles for this new staging. But, unlike many comedies, this is a work where age does matter and so conviction goes out the window. Christine Kavanagh and Cherie Lunghi as Cecily and Gwendolen respectively, fare no better. But Rosalind Ayres makes Miss Prism a believable figure.

The only cast member, however, who captures the essence of Wilde’s work is Sian Phillips. She really looks and acts the part, turning Lady Bracknell into a naughty vulture-like figure, whose voice swoops and swoons to considerable effect-simply a joy to watch!

I suggest that directors of future productions take heed of the importance of not tampering with such much loved comic masterpieces as this and put them on as they were meant to be staged!

Runs until September 20

Box office: 0844 871 7622

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