The Importance of Being Earnest
Reviewed – 9th June 2019
“it is ultimately the cast’s joyful delivery that decorates this production with festoons of colour”
Despite the initial success of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”, its opening coincidentally marked his fall from grace at the height of his career. Wilde would write no further comic or dramatic work and his notoriety caused the West End premiere to be pulled. Even the ensuing Broadway run closed after just sixteen performances. It is a sad paradox that mirrors those firmly embedded in his writing but, fortunately for theatre audiences worldwide, the play survived and has stood the test of time; to become what has been described as “the second most known and quoted play in English after Hamlet”.
This familiarity can be a curse as well as a blessing for directors. David Phipps-Davis’ production at the Tabard Theatre, however, certainly falls into the latter with its lovingly faithful and light-hearted joyride through the lives and double lives of these mischievous characters. Yes, we may be on very safe ground, but the cast of eight keep us on high alert throughout with their expertly subtle handling of the text. Nothing seems overplayed, which allows space for the nonsense and illogicality to leap out of the dialogue.
The bizarre plot ridicules Victorian sensibilities, but here, set three decades later in the twenties, it loses none of the punch. It is the story of two bachelors, John ‘Jack’ Worthington and Algernon ‘Algy’ Moncrieff, who create alter egos named Ernest to escape their tiresome lives. Attempting to win the hearts of two women, the pair struggle to keep up with their own stories and become tangled in a tale of deception, disguise and misadventure.
Samuel Oakes as ‘Algy’ and Tim Gibson as ‘Jack’ have a natural onstage chemistry, bouncing off each other while pitching the dialogue with the ease of a juggler. Throwing their lines into the air, they never let any of them drop. Lady Bracknell is similarly natural, played with a welcome understatement by Non Vaughan-O’Hagan who neatly highlights the snobbery and materialism without resorting to caricature. Melissa Knighton captures the curt crispness of Gwendolen’s unassailable pretension in a strong professional debut performance. Kirsty Jackson occasionally slips into jarring histrionics as the hopeless romantic, Cecily, but otherwise endears us to her mad-as-a-hatter waywardness. Jo Ashe sparkles as her governess, Miss Prism, refreshingly unveiling a softer side with flirtatious asides that belie the prudish veneer. The apple of her eye is Canon Chasuble, played by Dean Harris who never fails to put a smile on your face when he wanders, bumbling, onto the stage. And to cap it all Paul Foulds gives a star turn as the valet, the butler, the gardener, the chauffeur and Mr Gribsby – the solicitor who turns up to arrest Algernon for unpaid hotel bills – a ‘lost’ character reinstated by Phipps-Davis from an early draft of the script.
Lacking the darker undertones of Wilde’s earlier work, this interpretation is playful and stylised but measured out strictly within the confines of respectability. While Leah Sams’ costumes are as colourful as the language, the inbuilt irreverence sometimes appears monochrome. But it is ultimately the cast’s joyful delivery that decorates this production with festoons of colour.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Andreas Grieger
The Importance of Being Earnest
Tabard Theatre until 23rd June
Previously reviewed at this venue: