It’s always a nice surprise when directors go against expectations, so all credit to Peter Gill for steering The Importance of Being Earnest well clear of that upholstered Victorian comfort zone where Oscar Wilde’s stylish mix of topsy turvy aphorisms and smart epigrams can easily end up resembling a puffed-up theatrical soufflé with nothing of importance at the centre except a famous killer line about a handbag.
Wilde himself described his play of Victorian manners as “a trivial comedy for serious people”. Gill and his cast, led by the formidable Penelope Keith with her chin held fashionably high as the socially arrogant Lady Bracknell, take Wilde’s trivial pursuits pretty seriously, which mostly pays off handsomely. Instead of adding new layers of meaning to a play that has been groaning with its own cleverness ever since it was first performed in 1895, and generating all manner of theatrical interpretations along the way, here’s an Importance that, well, earnestly keeps its eye on what the author actually wrote.
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it seems to be the only big idea. Which means you can sit back and enjoy a production with no bolted-on directorial fancies to get in the way of the farcical – and, frankly, oh-so-familiar – plot involving two upper crust young gents, Algy and Jack, concocting secret personas (“Bunbury” and “Ernest”) in order to add spice to their lives, only to find their sly deception blowing up in their faces when they fall for the charms of highly eligible society girls Gwendolen (Lady B’s daughter) and Cecily (Jack’s teenage ward).
In other hands, these characters would be stagey Victorian caricatures. Even designer William Dudley’s town and country sets discard most of the vestiges of Victoriana. Algy’s swishy bachelor flat in Half Moon Street, for instance, where Keith’s Lady B sails in for cucumber sandwiches and ends up giving nephew Jack his first handbagging of the evening, is decked out in what would then have then been considered as highly trendy Arts and Crafts Movement style, with sleek Art Nouveau armchairs out of Heals’ furniture department.
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. Apart from looking so scarily imperious in a succession of vast plumed hats and magnificent gowns, it’s hard to think of any actress capable of exuding so much English class snobbery with so little effort.
But if William Ellis’ Algy and Harry Hadden-Paton’s Jack seem a bit too languid to have led the double life of a Bunburyist, there’s never any doubt that Daisy Haggard’s sexually precocious Gwendolen also has mercenary Bracknell blood surging through her veins, or that Rebecca Knight’s girlish Cecily can’t wait to rip off that Victorian bodice. Indeed, 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.