Theatre Review: The Importance of Being Earnest

Date Posted: 08/07/2015

David Suchet as Lady Bracknell.

David Suchet heads up the cast in yet another West End revival of the Oscar Wilde classic, The Importance of Being Earnest at the Vaudeville Theatre. Carrie Martindale went to find out just how important the name of Earnest really is.

Asides the fact that The Importance of Being Earnest is one of our best-loved British comedies, the big pull of this latest production for a lot of people is going to be the fact that David Suchet is playing the coveted role of Lady Bracknell. Or, if you want to be coarse about it, people want to see Poirot in drag. The tube is full of posters of his normally-moustachioed face bedecked in rouge and lipstick.

An actor of Suchet’s calibre in this role isn’t new. Lady Bracknell has often been played by the best. The theatre-sets’ loveys and darlings, both male and female, have queued up for the role since the comedy’s seminal performance in 1895.

Suchet bounds onto the set, a vision in Damson jam-coloured velvet who owns the stage in a way someone who knows that everyone in that auditorium has come to see him would. And he plays Lady Bracknell like a Grade 8 pianist plays Shostakovich. He has her disdainful looks down to a tee, sporting a Medusa-like stare that could turn any man to stone, but I didn’t warm to him when he feigned flirtatiousness. Perhaps I am too fond of Poirot?

If you’re not familiar with the plot it’s not necessary to tell you anything more than it’s a comedy about mistaken identities, troubles in love and Victorian society. The play toys with the double standards within social etiquette and decorum, and pokes fun at the upper classes and their often hypocritical respectability.

If you liked Jeeves and Wooster and loved Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, then this production should definitely crop up on your theatre wish list.

Imogen Doel as Cecily and Philip Cumbus as Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest

Pictured: Imogen Doel as Cecily and Philip Cumbus as Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest.

As a Wilde fan, it’s less about the acting and more about the writing for me. Yes of course great actors make the words come to life, but it is the very words themselves, the slicing wit of dear Oscar, that makes this play sheer genius.

Lady Bracknell, for example, spews out witticism after witticism; and it’s actually quite tiring to keep up with her. It’s the aural equivalent of doing ten rounds with Tyson.

The three sets are glorious, not particularly clever, just old-school convincing. The play has been set in many different eras over the years, but it always works best when a producer returns it to Wilde’s own fin de siècle period. The addition of ‘real-life’ smoking and eating (copious amounts by Algie Moncrieff) adds to its authenticity.

Michael Benz as John Worthing is most definitely ‘the most Earnest person I’ve ever seen’, but my personal favourite, both the character and the actor portraying him was Philip Cumbus as the Champagne-swilling muffin-guzzling Algernon Moncrieff.

He leaps across the stage, languishes on chaise-lounge and delivers delicious lines such as: “If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated.”

Note must also be given to Michele Dotrice as Miss Prism and Richard O’Callaghan as Canon ‘my sermon can be adapted to any occasion’ Chausable.

No, there isn’t any singing, dancing or pizazz but there is a continual fandango of lacerating one-liners to entertain your mind, if not your eyes. You’ll fall in love with Wilde’s wit and wonder how on earth you ever got by in life without having a ‘Bunbury’.

The Importance of Being Earnest is set to run at the Vaudeville Theatre until 7th November. Groups of ten or more can claim a discounted ticket rate on Monday to Friday performances. For more information visit www.importanceofearnest.com.

Photo credits: Alastair Muir.

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