Penelope Keith (pictured) returned to the West End last night (31 January, previews from 22 January) as the famous matron with a handbag fixation, Lady Bracknell, in Peter Gill’s new revival of Oscar Wilde’s classic 1895 comedy The Importance of Being Earnest (See News, 28 Aug 2007). Following a national tour, the production is now running for a limited season to 28 April 2008 at the Vaudeville Theatre.

In The Importance of Being Earnest, prim-and-proper Jack Worthington is in love with the equally prim-and-proper Gwendolen Fairfax. His friend Algernon Moncrieff is in love with Cecily Cardew. But both Gwendolen and Cecily are in love with Ernest. Meanwhile, the imposing Lady Bracknell is dubious about a story involving a handbag …

The last major West End outing for the Wilde comedy was at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 1999, when Patricia Routledge played Lady Bracknell in Christopher Morahan’s production transferred from the Chichester Festival (See News, 11 Jun 1999). In Gill’s production, designed by William Dudley, Keith is joined by Janet Henfrey, William Ellis, Harry Hadden-Paton, Daisy Haggard, Rebecca Night and Maxwell Hutcheon.

But all of the first night critics’ eyes were understandably on Penelope Keith and she didn’t in that renowned role that “she was created by the theatrical gods to perform”. Other cast members who impressed included Harry Hadden-Paton as an “enjoyably energetic” Jack, and Daisy Haggard and Rebecca Night who are “deliciously sexy and sparky” as Gwendolen and Cecily. While “not especially remarkable”, the production still allows Wilde’s “theatrical genius” to shine through and as such is “perfectly worth seeing”.

  • Roger Foss on (three stars) - “It’s always a nice surprise when directors go against expectations, so all credit to Peter Gill … The cast play Wilde straight down the middle, mostly as a series of sharp conversation pieces, delivering the charm of dialogue in a suitably clipped and artificial manner. Keith even slips Bracknell’s ‘handbag’ line quietly into touch instead of scoring an easy laugh. Intriguingly, she’s never the full-on aristocratic gorgon feared by Jack, but with her total command of diction and upper-crust body language, Keith always remains quietly terrifying even when she’s smiling. She was surely born to be Bracknell … Wilde gives his women the best lines, including Janet Henfrey’s delightfully spinsterish Miss Prism, the owner of the battered old handbag that began all the identity confusion when she placed the infant Jack in it by mistake. The conventional Wildean soufflé may be missing, but the final result is a West End revival that definitely rises to the occasion.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Gill's production, as attentive to character as to Wilde's sculpted prose, confirms women rule the roost through Penelope Keith's Lady Bracknell. Wisely eschewing swooping, Edith Evans-style cadences, Keith combines an effortlessly imperious manner with a beady delight in loot. Having established Worthing's credit-worthiness, she happily puts away her notebook, and later bestows radiant smiles on Cecily Cardew on learning she is financially loaded. It is a highly intelligent performance, reminding us Lady Bracknell is herself an arriviste who has acquired class through money. Reinforcing the note of female dominance, Rebecca Night brings to Cecily the beguiling mix of iron and innocence she displayed as TV's Fanny Hill. In contrast, the men are all fluster and panic under their seeming suavity … In this production, elegantly designed by William Dudley, we are also unusually aware this is a study of the sex war in which the women, by knowing what they want, come out on top.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) - “Peter Gill’s revival won’t do in your head or blow you out of your seat into the Strand, and, really, why should it? It’s a decent, serviceable production that I’d recommend to anybody who doesn’t know the play too well … But the production does bring the long-absent Penelope Keith back to the West End in the role that her perfect diction, her effortlessly elegant accent, her shape, her demeanour, everything, suggests she was created by the theatrical gods to perform … The supporting actors are all fine – William Ellis an Algy with a slightly arrogant swagger, Daisy Haggard a lisping Gwendolen who is a bit of a sexual predator – and can hardly be blamed if their sentences sound as they’re in invisible quotation marks. After all, half the play is to be found in any good dictionary of quotations. That is one of its delights but, if I’m to carp a little, also one of its irritants. So much is familiar … On last night’s evidence, this production is not especially remarkable – and so is perfectly worth seeing.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “I can think of no better form of comic pleasure than that engendered by a pitch-perfect revival of The Importance of Being Earnest. Oscar Wilde's great comedy of doubtful morals, impeccable snobbery and affected manners, set in a Victorian high summer of cucumber sandwiches and discovered parentage, does not stale with familiarity. Even Peter Gill's disappointing, rather second-class production left me elated and delighted to catch Wilde's philosophic witticisms again … Penelope Keith's Lady Bracknell is steeped in a languid haughtiness and expounds the rules of high society with leisurely relish. She plays the role less as patrolling gorgon or avid fortune hunter, more as a Victorian Miss Manners or grand parvenu, not quite to the manner born. Yet so powerful is the eternal surprise, challenge and acuity of Wilde's subversive wit that the limitations of Gill's production do not matter over much. The playwright's theatrical genius keeps on shining through.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph “What always seems miraculous about The Importance of Being Earnest is that Wilde wrote it as his love affair with Bosie was bringing nothing but pain and trouble and he must have had strong intimations of the disaster that was soon to overwhelm him … Peter Gill's production captures the play's perfect illusion of innocence even if it is now fashionable to read the text … The big draw is of course Penelope Keith as Lady Bracknell, a role she might have been put on this earth to play. And what a delight she proves. What's inspired about this performance is that the actress plays the role as if she has no idea that Lady Bracknell is meant to be funny … Daisy Haggard and Rebecca Night are deliciously sexy and sparky as Gwendolen and Cecily and William Ellis has exactly the right infuriating smugness as Algie, Harry Hadden-Paton the required earnestness as Jack while Janet Henfrey and Tim Wylton are touching as well as funny as Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble.”

  • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (four stars) – “A well-balanced company breathes fresh life into the tale … Harry Hadden-Paton is enjoyably energetic as the foundling Jack, while William Ellis brings an unexpectedly bratty edge to the younger Algy, dishing out orders to Maxwell Hutcheon’s unruffleable manservant Lane in a way that brings the class relations of the play into uncomfortable relief … All eyes are inevitably on the big box-office draw, Penelope Keith, as Gwendolen’s imperious mother Lady Bracknell. It’s a part that seems to have her name on it … But it’s also a famously challenging role, because everyone thinks they know how it should be done … Keith does not play the role as the usual gorgon. Instead she portrays her ladyship as a firm but not unreasonable matriarch. Her comic timing is superb, and her understated performance is engagingly scathing … William Dudley’s interior and garden sets are delightful, and Joan Hughes’ lavish costumes complete the sumptuous, fin-de-siecle look.”

    - by Tom Atkins