The Importance of Being Earnest
The Watermill Theatre
Reviewed – 27th May 2019
“an inventive new take on an old favourite”
Should we care about ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’? Oscar Wilde’s best-known play about misplaced identities was written at the height of his fame. His brilliant wit shines in every scene and the piece features that line about a piece of left luggage that is probably as much quoted as ‘to be or not to be’.
The Watermill’s new production partly attempts to prove its relevance by setting the play in a contemporary apartment, which is all dull grey minimalism, and in the opening scene, decorated with a road traffic cone. It’s the kind of achingly trendy place that’s all concealed doors and cupboards, with a big Morris wallpaper feature wall, which in Sally Ferguson’s lighting design is cleverly lit to match the mood. At the start of the play the set seemed simply incongruous, lacking the glitz that might be expected of a London socialite’s pad. Weirdly, the cups are paper and the plates foil, a kind of knowing send-up that seemed just odd in the first half, but made perfect sense in the second when the play takes a surreal turn. The almost empty apartment does however come complete with a fully-liveried butler, played with glassy-eyed determination by the impressive Morgan Philpott. He begins and ends the show, as well as sustaining a crowd-pleasingly clever running gag throughout it that calls for the most impeccable timing.
So the scene is set for an inventive new take on an old favourite, as much beloved of amateur productions as it is of countless high profile cinema and stage versions. The lead, Algernon, is played by a splendidly gangling Peter Bray (RSC and the Globe). Wilde seems to have put most of himself into this ‘Bunburying’ young fop who gets some of the best lines. Bray more than rises to the challenge. As Jack, Benedict Salter is also excellent. In a splendid piece of direction by the very inventive Kate Budgen, Bray and Salter perform a kind of mad pas-de-deux to a Liszt piano concerto in a scene about muffins. ‘I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them’. Much has been written about the gay sub-text, in a play which was written when to be ‘earnest’ was to be gay. What with the Bunburying and cucumbers for ready money, it certainly doesn’t lack in innuendo, and this was nicely handled in this production.
Both young men and their female opposite numbers, Gwendolen (Claudia Jolly) and Cecily (Charlotte Beaumont), are splendidly dressed in period costumes. Wilde’s young women may be trapped in a suffocating Victorian system where a woman’s marriage is more about money than love, but his characters shine in these interpretations. Charlotte Beaumont in particular has a kind of winningly mad insistence, that in the second half almost took the play into Lewis Carroll territory.
And what of Lady Bracknell’s ‘handbag’ line, so famously delivered with ringing disdain by Edith Evans, then whispered by Maggie Smith in a role also played by Judi Dench and even David Suchet? Connie Walker certainly brings the ‘gorgon’ to life in her commanding interpretation. Wendy Nottingham makes a suitably dowdy Miss Prism, and Jim Creighton is a satisfying Dr Chasuble.
‘To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of modern life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution’. Just for lines like this, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is more than worth the price of a ticket. This fresh and inventive new production at the Watermill makes it more than doubly so.
Reviewed by David Woodward
Photography by Philip Tull
The Importance of Being Earnest
The Watermill Theatre until 29th June
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: