The Importance of Being Earnest – Review – York Theatre Royal
By Roger Crow, April 2018
Remarkably I’ve never seen Oscar Wilde’s greatest play, either on stage or film. So, as I settle in for The Importance of Being Earnest at Theatre Royal, York, I’m not sure what to expect.
Thankfully it turns out to be a joy, not least because of Gwen Taylor, whose flawless performance as the iconic Lady Bracknell is so word-perfect, it’s a joy to behold. The rest of the cast from The Original Theatre Company aren’t bad either. More of which later.
The plot, for those like me, who aren’t up to speed: Jack wishes to marry Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen. However, first he must convince her mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell, of the respectability of his parents and his past. Bit of a stumbling block that as he was abandoned in a handbag at Victoria station.
“Glorious speech patterns”
Yes, “A handbag”, perhaps the most repeated line in Wilde’s repertoire. Thankfully Ms Taylor executes it in a way that doesn’t take the viewer out of the drama. She knows the audience is waiting for it, but downplays it, and it’s a stronger scene as a result.
Louise Coulthard is a hoot as Cecily Cardew, the beautifully eccentric diarist whose love for amiable hedonist Algernon (a suitably exuberant turn from Downton Abbey veteran Thomas Howes) forms part of the farce. Her glorious speech patterns are reminiscent of Queenie in Blackadder II, or maybe Miranda Richardson was channelling the original Cecily in that classic sitcom. I’m sure a Wilde expert like Gyles Brandreth could wax lyrical about that for hours.
“Feels remarkably fresh”
It sounds obvious, but Wilde’s dialogue is a treat for any lover of a well-crafted line. Many an uninspired screenwriter could do to study his masterful work. The writers of Frasier no doubt did, as that sitcom could have adapted the story cold, if it weren’t for the gloriously bonkers hook the show is hung on.
The radiant Hanna Louise Howell is also magnetic as the divine Gwendolen Fairfax, and rounding out the key players is Peter Sandys-Clarke (who you may have glimpsed in Edge of Tomorrow) as Jack Worthing, the protagonist at the heart of the piece. It’s also a treat to see showbiz legend Susan Penhaligon (Bouquet of Barbed Wire) as the hapless Miss Prism.
The elegant fixed set means there’s no interruption in the three-act play, and director Alastair Whatley ensures there’s never a wasted minute. For a play that made its stage debut in 1895, it still feels remarkably fresh, probably because it’s been so lampooned and lovably ripped off over the years in countless farces.
“Raise a glass”
I had no clue what a Bunbury was before settling in, and now I plan to weave it into my life as much as possible. I’ll also track down some of the film versions, not least to see Judi Dench, Edith Evans and David Suchet’s take on Lady Bracknell.
It’s touch and go as to whether I go up to Gwen Taylor at the end of the night as cast, crew and fellow Press dissect the play over drinks. I’m glad I do because she’s delighted I enjoyed the show, and I imagine you will too.
Now, if you’ll excuse me I’m off to buy a smoking jacket so I can embark on a serious spot of Bunburying. And while I’m in the gutter looking at the stars, I’ll raise a glass to the real star of the show. Well played Mr Wilde.
images: The Other Richard