Gilding the lily can be a dangerous as well as counter-productive exercise. Take Michael Cabot's new production of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest for London Classic Theatre. Cabot and his designers Kerry Bradley and Katja Krzesinska keep the acting fairly naturalistic, the costumes in period and the dialogue fizzing along at a brisk pace but limit furnishings to an assortment of chairs – each suited to one of the main characters – with a peripatetic tea trolley and the minimum of garden furniture for the second act.
Most of those chairs are manoeuvred into place so that the characters can subside onto them when necessary by Jonathan Ashley doubling the laconic Lane and the seen-better-days Merriman. If Ashley Cook's Moncrieff is a thoroughly laid-back young-man-about-town, Paul Sandys' Worthing is the exact opposite – all nervous energy which twists into sharpness; you feel that he's his own worst enemy just when he's most in need of friendly support.
His main opponent, of course, is Lady Bracknell. Judith Paris makes her a formidable dowager, injecting a lethal double-dose of non-comprehension and disdain into the phrase “an alliance with a parcel!”. Making her professional début, Helen Keeley's Gwendolen is very much her mother's daughter; one feels sure that she will rule the roost if and when she marries Worthing. Helen Phillips as Cecily is a quicksilver minx with a finely developed sense of just what she can get away with.
Both Laoisha O'Callaghan's Miss Prism and Peter Cadden's Dr Chasuble are fleshed-out portraits, rather than caricatures. There's an air of driven intensity about O'Callaghan which makes it plain that Prism's just the sort of person whose attention will be more on what she wants – be that publishing her manuscript novel or leading Chasuble to his own altar – than on the minutiae of the job for which she's actually been hired.
All in all, it's an interesting reading of a comedy which is so well made that its sheer nonsense carries it through any manner of stagings. This one is, however, just a touch too clever for its own good.