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Review: The Importance of Being Earnest (Birmingham Repertory Theatre)

Nikolai Foster directs Oscar Wilde's 1895 tale of mistaken identity

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Oscar Wilde's comedy of confused identities is rarely off the stage and this Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Leicester Curve co-production reminds us why. Wilde's razor-sharp dialogue can fall flat with an inexperienced or over-zealous cast but Curve artistic director Nikolai Foster ensures every pearl of wisdom, hint of sarcasm and touch of wit is delivered with just the right tone.

It may be more than a century old but The Importance of Being Earnest still feels very contemporary with its themes of love, deception, family and social values very much to the fore. With two friends, John and Algernon, both claiming to be the mysterious brother Ernest and neither able to denounce the other for fear of unveiling their own dishonesty, Wilde's plot twists and turns with each added complexity.

Cathy Tyson is suitably ghastly as the indomitable Lady Bracknell. Sweeping onto the stage like an imperious matriarch, she is the unbearable elderly relative we are all so grateful not to have. And yet she is so open in her venality, snobbery and bossiness that they actually become endearing qualities.

Fela Lufadeju and Edward Franklin as John and Algernon have a perfect balance of the total selfishness of young men wanting to live life to the full with a charm which wins over the audience despite their faults.

Martha Mackintosh and Sharan Phull are delightful as the love interests Gwendolen and Cecily. A highlight of the show is their first meeting in which they move from best friends to implacable enemies in a few short minutes as they both believe they are in love with the same Ernest. As Cecily heaps sugar into Gwendolen's teacup despite having just been told ‘no sugar', the tension between the two women is both palpable and very funny.

Isla Shaw's design is ingenious. Surrounding the entire stage with high mirrors creates a level of visual disorientation to reflect the confusion taking place in the lives of the characters. It is a visible symbol of the distance caused by deception as each image is repeated again and again. And when the scene moves to John's country house, an entire garden is created by a series of flowers hanging from the ceiling - it is simple but highly effective.

On press night, there were a few stumbles over words from a number of the cast but it's still early in the run so hopefully this will be ironed out in the next few days. And it doesn't detract from the general sense of well-being and good will that exudes from this production. While Foster's The Importance of Being Earnest is largely traditional and doesn't hit the audience with any huge surprises it's lively, fun and hugely amusing.

The Importance of Being Earnest runs at The Birmingham Rep until 24 September and at the Curve, Leicester from 6 to 29 October.