Written in 1894 in Worthing at the height of his fame, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a marvel of social observation and wit, poking fun at the Victorian business of marriage, which, after all, had very little to do with love and everything to do with status.
Catching the Original Theatre Company’s acclaimed touring production at Theatre Royal Bath, in which Gwen Taylor stars as the overbearing Lady Bracknell, she leads a cast that makes each and every witticism in Wilde’s masterpiece shine, with precision timing that allows us to process the often lightening-speed pearls of wisdom and applaud at length.
Thomas Howes as her eligible, but extremely camp bachelor nephew Algernon Moncrieff is a joyous reincarnation of how one imagines Wilde to have behaved in his own drawing room; lounging around in a velvet smoking jacket, eating his aunt’s favourite cucumber sandwiches before she arrives, and comparing imaginary friends with his good chum Earnest Worthing (Peter Sandys-Clarke).
Lending the play an almost Twelfth Night-style identity confusion, Earnest happens to be called ‘Jack’ in the country, a fact that is revealed on Algernon reading an inscription inside his cigarette case, upon which Algie explains the many benefits of ‘Bunburying’, his made-up invalid friend Bunbury having gotten him out of many of Lady Bracknell’s engagements due to suddenly taking ill.
Jack/Earnest wishes to marry Algernon’s beautiful cousin Gwendolen (the famed musical sensation Kerry Ellis), but first he must get past her mother, the all-seeing, all-knowing Lady Bracknell who has already compiled a list of possible suitors – and he isn’t one of them. Yet. The one thing in his favour is the name of Earnest, for Gwendolen declares that she couldn’t possibly love any man Christened anything else.
Algernon, on the other hand, almost falls in love on the spot when he discovers that Jack has a pretty young ward in the country called Cecily (Louise Coulthard), and contrives to meet her by pretending to be Jack’s naughty brother Earnest, whom Cecily has heard so much about, and is equally besotted by – as her diary can bear witness. He must get past her governess Miss Prism (sit-com legend Susan Penhaligon), however, but fortunately she is more interested in taking lengthy walks with the other bachelor in the story, Reverend Canon Chausable (Geoff Aymer).
Each of the three acts are wonderfully lively and packed full of repartee that satisfies our Wilde passion at least for another half decade. On a deeper level, this satire not only explores the aristocratic conventions of husband/wife-hunting and the importance placed on birth and money, but how the one could easily be overlooked in lieu of the other. Whilst Lady Bracknell initially frowns upon Jack for having no known parentage on account of having been ‘found’ as a baby in the cloakroom of Victoria Station, all is forgiven when it’s discovered that he is in fact noble by birth (not to mention having been named Earnest) due to the alcoholic Miss Prism having mislaid him when she was his nanny – his mother being Lady Bracknell’s sister. It may seem all seem rather incestuous, but the Shakespearean-inspired comic ending is assured to bring a wry smile to your lips.
The Importance of Being Earnest is a play that’s as familiar to me as The Queen’s Speech at Christmas, with minor variations that sometimes work and more often fail. Personally, I don’t want to see a man in drag play Lady Bracknell however commendable David Suchet was in the West End production in 2015. I want to see a faithful revival as it might have been staged originally, with flamboyant Wildean sets and costumes (Gabriella Slade) and a cast the playwright himself might have hand-picked. This sparkling version has it all. As The Original Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Alastair Whatley explains, ‘This production is intended as a celebration. A celebration for celebration’s sake, or as Wilde himself said ‘art for art’s sake’.
The reviewer saw The Original Theatre Company’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest at Theatre Royal Bath as part of an extensive UK tour booking until May 2018. For more information, tour dates and tickets please visit the website.