Review Round-Ups

Were critics earnest about Classic Spring's final production?

Michael Fentiman’s production opened at the Vaudeville Theatre last night

Fiona Button as Cecily Cardew and Fehinti Balogun as Algernon
Fiona Button as Cecily Cardew and Fehinti Balogun as Algernon
© Marc Brenner

Alun Hood, WhatsOnStage


"Think you know Wilde's masterpiece? Get to the Vaudeville where Michael Fentiman's sexy, dark-hued but fresh take on The Importance Of Being Earnest brings the Classic Spring Company's year-long Oscar Wilde season to an enthralling, er, climax."

"Sex is everywhere: note the erotically charged way Pippa Nixon's gorgeously funny Gwendolen prostates herself across a grand piano or forces food into sometimes unwilling mouths at moments of high stress…

"All of this swooning sensuality might have unbalanced a comedy that, for all its melancholic intimations of the double lives some people are forced to lead in order to achieve fulfilment, is held up as a masterpiece of sparkling wit. "

"This is an Earnest that will likely infuriate as many people as it delights. It's witty, earthy and subversive, both honouring the text and throwing fresh ideas at it. "

Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard


"There's a finely tuned understanding here of manners, morals and marriage, and director Michael Fentiman's at times racy interpretation suggests the anarchy seething beneath Wilde's polished witticisms."

"The female characters are less prim than is usually the case. Fiona Button's Cecily and Pippa Nixon's Gwendolen are both self-possessed, keen to transcend the limits of convention. Sexual chemistry flares between them and their admirers, and the women are in charge, with Button especially good at suggesting that Cecily's much-vaunted simplicity isn't the same thing as naivety."

"With every comic opportunity eagerly milked, there's a risk of this colourful production turning into pantomime… But even if this isn't the most subtle take on the play, the one-liners retain their sparkle. Unafraid of daftness and exaggeration, it's an entertaining conclusion to the Classic Spring company's year-long West End celebration of Wilde."

Natasha Tripney, The Stage


"Michael Fentiman's pantomimic production does it a disservice. Denuded of nuance, it reduces every character to a caricature and pitches the comedy at such a frenzied level from the outset it allows it nowhere to go and no space to grow.

"Sophie Thompson plays Lady Bracknell like a combination of Maggie Smith in the later series of Downton Abbey, on dowager-autopilot, and a drawing by Gerald Scarfe, chin tilted towards the ceiling, twit-twooing her vowels. Gwendolen (played by the usually brilliant Pippa Nixon) spends her early scenes angling her crotch towards Jacob Fortune-Lloyd's Jack, in a way no human woman has ever stood or behaved."

"This was a season that set out to hymn Wilde in the West End, to present a portrait of the man, his politics and his art, launching in the year of the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Some of the productions have achieved that with flashes of humanity and pathos amid the quips, but this last one, of his best-known play, has all the subtlety of a meat tenderiser. It'll sell well, no doubt, but it's a clunker of a production."

Pippa Nixon as Gwendolen Fairfax and Sophie Thompson as Lady Bracknell
Pippa Nixon as Gwendolen Fairfax and Sophie Thompson as Lady Bracknell
© Marc Brenner

Holly Williams, Time Out


"I'm all for mining a subtext, but director Michael Fentiman's approach rubbles the structure of an exquisitely formed play.

"It's also not actually radical: this is, mostly, a very straightforward take, with mannered performances, period costumes and posh drawings rooms, the latter invaded by flowerbeds and hanging boughs when we move to the country in the second half. "

"Fiona Button is the stand-out – by some distance – as a bright, engaging Cecily; she allows the character to be absolutely as doolally as written, while also nailing her bossy efficiency as a full-on flirt, with very clear ideas about love and how it should play out. Shame she's the only one, in this muddled take."

Michael Billington, The Guardian


"While many members of the first-night audience were in hysterics, I found Michael Fentiman's production of this comic masterpiece inexpressibly coarse and vulgar.

"You could argue that Victorian bachelors were on intimate terms with their butlers. I can't believe for a second, however, that Algy's walls would have been decorated with a picture of erotically entwined naked men: Lady Bracknell, a regular visitor, would have dropped dead on the spot."

"While rightly claiming that Wilde's play is a social satire, Fentiman never allows the words to do their work. Examine the text and you find Wilde's play offers a running commentary on class, money, marriage, economics, social hypocrisy, the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of commerce: the action may be farcical but Wilde's witticisms, in the words of Eric Bentley, offer "not comic but serious relief"."

"The best moment comes with Miss Prism's revelation of the mix-up of the baby and the book: that is because Stella Gonet resists the general over-playing and because the scene is invested with a genuine suspense. Otherwise a lot of good actors are obliged to do a lot of shouty acting. "