The Importance of Being Earnest
Reviewed – 20th February 2020
“packs in lots of entertaining elements but teeters dangerously on the brink of panto”
An entire cast stranded on a broken-down bus, the producer and stage-manager of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ must make a hasty decision, if the show is to go on. In an evening of quick changes, larger-than-life characters and bustling choreography, they helter-skelter through Oscar Wilde’s iconic parody of constrained Victorian morality. Jack and his friend Algernon have both invented imaginary counterparts, Ernest and Bunbury, to enable them to escape any unwelcome or tedious obligation. As their intentions for marriage intensify, their stories unravel and being Ernest appears to be of the utmost importance.
Written at a significant time in his life, just as his homosexuality was revealed and condemned, it is a deceptively flippant comment on the dual identity many people felt the need to live. London’s vibrant social scene with its clubs, hotels and theatres – not to mention the West End’s red-light district – would have been an irresistible, and therefore common, distraction for the English male aristocracy. Although marriage figures centrally as plot, debate and comment, the homosexual asides, ‘Ernest’, a euphemism for homosexual and ‘Cecily’, a reference to rent boys, are far from subtle. And this is reflected in the flamboyancy of the production which packs in lots of entertaining elements but teeters dangerously on the brink of panto.
Director, Bryan Hodgson, produces a lively build-up of pandemonium as the plot thickens and the denouement accelerates. There are interjections to remind us that the cast are still on their way, but they are inconsistent and aren’t always attuned to the script. The multi-tasking actors, Aidan Harkins and Ryan Bennett succeed in impressively dexterous costume changes which become gradually more frenetic and resourceful with the entanglement of the play. There is a strong repartee established in the opening scene between Jack and Algernon but subsequently the characterisation is less balanced. Harkins’ portrayals of Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism are perhaps unconventional, but are well defined and fit convivially into the world of innuendos. As his own Lady Bracknell, Bennett is suitably overblown, yet his Cecily lacks any real persona. Of course, the point is that they are standing in at the last minute, but there is no real coherence here either.
Technically sharp, Sam Rowcliffe-Tanner’s lighting accompanies the exaggerated scenarios and the sound (Harry Smith) adds to some odd and rousing moments with Verdi’s ‘Dies Irae’ summing up Lady Bracknell’s appearance and the farcical scampering around to Brahms’ Hungarian Dance. Denise Cleal’s costumes cleverly combine period style with practical quick- change needs.
Camp, in the very French literary sense that influenced Wilde, this effervescent version of his classic comedy of manners (subtitled by the writer as ‘A Trivial Comedy for Serious People’), piles comic melodrama, slapstick and caricature onto his intellectual farce, producing a colourful rumpus of a show with a fun finale. Perhaps not appealing to everyone’s taste in classical theatre but, judging by the standing ovation, popular with many.
Reviewed by Joanna Hetherington
Photography by John-Webb Carter
The Importance of Being Earnest
Turbine Theatre until 29th February
Previously reviewed at this venue: