We think of Oscar Wilde's "trivial comedy for serious people" as the most perfect of plays, but it has always been susceptible to radical overhaul. The three-act masterpiece, after all, was hastily prepared by Wilde after the original producer, George Alexander, insisted on cuts.
But the conceit behind Lucy Bailey's strange revival is not one of restoring the original lines or scenes, or even offering a Lady Bracknell who is either a German hausfrau or a drag act (both have been tried); it's a re-modelling of the entire piece as an improvised dress rehearsal of an amateur drama company, the Bunbury Players.
So, Siân Phillips as Lavinia, a country house hostess, is trying different inflections for Lady Bracknell's "handbag" line, and Martin Jarvis as Tony the director tries to keep the play on track while delivering his own performance as John Worthing. Lavinia's husband, George, is channelling the deferential butlers, Merriman and Lane, as an act of hospitality, and Cherie Lunghi's Maria is a far more vengeful and confident Gwendolen Fairfax than we should expect.
Basically, everyone's too old for the roles they are playing, but that doesn't stop them from repeating old tricks. And, rather touchingly, Martin Jarvis and Nigel Havers are re-occupying the parts of John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff they first played at the National Theatre in 1982.
But instead of supplying a meta-theatricality along the lines of Michael Frayn's Noises Off – in which actors are rehearsing and performing Nothing On and bumping into the furniture as well as each other – Simon Brett's framing device merely pushes the play into an awkward package that doesn't convince you that Wilde's comedy has become indelibly ingrained in the lives of its interpreters.
That idea certainly informs William Dudley's ingenious design of Lavinia's house as an Arts and Crafts relic that supposedly entices the play from its inhabitants. But the whole set-up is one of rapidly diminishing returns, with nothing gained from the inter-reaction of the actors with their own roles, and a growing conviction that in just playing the comedy straightforwardly, these actors would have made the same points about maturity of interpretation.
There's a lot of crude interpolation, too, which is neither funny nor shocking enough to improve on Wilde or send him up rotten, despite some inventive layers of decoration applied by Rosalind Ayres as an aghast Miss Prism and Niall Buggy as a manically demonstrative Canon Chasuble.
These two actors, in fact, fit their roles like a glove, impervious to the background fiddling about of the stage management team. In the end, the pleasures of the play are the same – the silk and staccato of the competitive exchanges, the gazumping of expectation with comic confession and revelation – and the high concept setting melts from irritating tweeness into mere insignificance.