With Patricia Routledge starring as the imperious Lady Bracknell, this revival of The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde's greatest comedy, boasts unbeatable casting. Indeed, it’s difficult to envisage anyone else in contemporary theatre more tailored for the part. An imposing presence resplendent in royal purple – a credit to Emma Williams the costume supervisor and Sara Jane Drew the wardrobe mistress – the redoubtable Routledge dispenses her character's societal wisdom, whilst revealing Bracknell's appalling snobbery in resonant, yet quavering tones. She commands our attention throughout.
Wilde's tale of identity lost and found contains a plethora of celebrated aphorisms, caustic observations, and hilarious counter-intuitive statements. Its marvellous machinations are so familiar as to preclude recounting here.
Theo Fraser Steele's Algernon is a mischievous fellow who walks over sofas and dangles his hat in strange places, but he takes time to hit his stride and inhabit his role's rascal qualities. In John/Ernest Worthing (Alistair Petrie), Gwendolen (Essie Davies) and later with Jack's ward Cecily Cardew (Sarah Kants), we find polished portraits that shine as the production gathers apace.
In particular, the scene between Cecily and Gwendolen over tea and bread and butter crackles with the energy sometimes missing earlier in the proceedings.
Christopher Morahan's direction is more steady than zestful, but he does produce several lovely moments, including Cecily and Gwendolen's co-ordinated step-hopping into the house as they indignantly take their leave of the dissembling Algy and Ernest.
Designer Peter Rice conveys Algy's London flat in light wood and a library of faux books while filling Jack's Hertfordshire garden with wicker chairs and white lattice work.
The pink and pistachio colours of the morning room in the final scene are eclipsed by the flaming red and orange of Lady Bracknell's outfit. Throughout the glorious finale, Routledge takes centre stage to unveil the denouement that tells us all we desire about the importance of being E(a)rnest.
Paul B Cohen
Note: The following review dates from August 1999 and the production's original London run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
There was no mistaking that this was a special evening. Not only was it the opening night of Oscar Wilde's brilliant satire at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, but it was also the Queen Mum's 99th birthday. And what better way to celebrate, along with her two daughters, than a night out at the theatre?
Their presence, combined with the posh Victorian surroundings, enhanced the feeling of travelling back in time. But not too much. While the importance was first performed in 1895, the hundred-year-old text remains as witty and funny as it ever was, ruthlessly satirising the dull and pompous upper classes and the melodramatic theatre that was the order of the day.
Jack Worthing (Adam Godley) is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax (Saskia Wickham), the daughter of fortune-hunter aristocrat Lady Bracknell (Patricia Routledge) and a cousin of Algernon Moncrieff (Alan Cox), Jack's friend. Algernon meanwhile falls in love with Jack's young ward, Cecily (Rebecca Johnson). Bizarrely, the two women are determined to fall in love only with men named Earnest, so, both men do everything to win the heart of their loved one.
Lady Bracknell's presence on stage is clearly marked by the audience's recognition of Routledge, better known as Hyacinth Bucket in the long-running BBC series Keeping Up Appearances. This works against her to some degree as she tackles the role rather too predictably, in true Mrs Bucket style, following the text without attempting to personalise it. Despite Routledge's star name, it's the four younger players who are more successful in holding the audience's attention, especially in the dialogue between the two women in the second half of the play.
It's hard to put on a bad show of the importance - Wilde's script is so teasingly fun, you can't fail to enjoy it. But while Christopher Morahan s production feels solid and well rehearsed, I can't help but think it would have benefited from some greater sparkle of originality.
Note: The following review dates from the production's run at the Chichester Festival where it opened in May 1999.
The snag with this “trivial comedy for serious people” by Oscar Wilde is that audiences know it so well. With old musicals, you go in singing the songs. With Wilde, you go in saying the witty one-liners.
One memorable phrase, in particular, hangs over this play - 'a handbag'. The temptation to try to put some new inflection on those two words must be great. The solution of Patricia Routledge is to pass quickly over Lady Bracknell's initial mention of the object, uttering the words in a small gasp of amazement and then getting on with the rest of the play.
Both actress and production by Christopher Morahan deliver exactly what you expect based on their past credits - a polished, traditional performance without frills or fuss. Very entertaining but not exceptional. Miss Routledge must live in fear of her Lady Bracknell being compared to her famous TV character Hyacinth Bucket but rarely does she remind you of the monster she created in Keeping Up Appearances. Her Lady B is firm in her views but not as big an ogre as we ve seen her portrayed in the past.
Besides, there is much more to Wilde's play than one character and a famous two-word exclamation. Much fun is to be had as men about town Algernon (Alan Cox oozing confidence and self-satisfaction) and John Worthing (a suitably earnest-looking Adam Godley) juggle with dual identities, cucumber sandwiches, independently-minded fiancees and a case of bunburying gone badly wrong. All credit to the actors for making something more of their characters than mere mouthpieces for a string of epigrams.
Saskia Wickham as Gwendolen Fairfax is clearly a chip off the old Lady Bracknell block and you can only feel sorry for the man she marries. She and Rebecca Johnson as young, impressionable Cecily are particularly thrilling as they engage in a duel of words over their fiances - meeting as strangers, becoming best friends, falling out and then making up to become bosom buddies again in the space of 10 minutes. It's a cracking scene.
Only Jonathan Cecil as the Rev Canon Chasuble and Sheila Reid as Miss Prism disappoint. You feel they could make more of the relationship between this odd couple.