The Importance of Being Earnest is one of Britain’s best-loved plays, so much so that there are currently two major stage adaptations for us UK theatre lovers to choose from – one in the West End, and a new touring production with an all-star cast that includes Nigel Havers, Martin Jarvis and Siân Phillips.
Oscar Wilde’s classic farce, set in 1895, pokes fun at the frivolous and hypocritical attitudes of Victorian society, through the story of two young men, Algernon and Jack. Both, in a bid to avoid any serious responsibility, and to continue living the carefree existence to which they’ve become accustomed, have invented fictional alter egos – but when they both fall in love, the friends’ lies begin to catch up with them, with hilarious results.
In a fresh and funny twist, Lucy Bailey’s production frames the play with additional material by Simon Brett, which sees the Bunbury Company of Players, an enthusiastic but disorganised am dram group from the Home Counties, attempt the dress rehearsal of their favourite and much-performed play, The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s a bit like Oscar Wilde meets The Play That Goes Wrong, only with slightly less disastrous consequences; despite a few mishaps and diversions, not to mention more than one spectacular tantrum over cucumber sandwiches, these actors do ultimately manage to pull off a successful, if slightly unconventional, performance.
Funnily enough, my only real complaint about this framing of the story is that there isn’t enough of it; from unpromising beginnings, the Bunbury Players suddenly get rather good, and the second act is played almost entirely straight. It’s still very funny, of course, as the characters’ lies begin to trip them up and mayhem ensues, but that’s what’s supposed to happen – personally, I would have enjoyed a few more moments of unintended chaos.
The main joke is the age of the actors, who are, for the most part, far too old to play Wilde’s characters, and yet do it with such enthusiasm and energy that somehow it actually works. Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis in particular make a charmingly mischievous comedy duo as Algy and Jack, and Christine Kavanagh perfectly captures the girlish excitement of teenage Cecily, despite being a good few decades older than her character. Siân Phillips, meanwhile, brings a little dignity to the proceedings as Lady Bracknell; her character gets all the best lines, and she delivers them with great style.
The dress rehearsal takes place in Bunbury founding member Lavinia’s beautiful home, which, as it turns out, was built in the 1890s when the play was being written. Before the action begins, it would be easy to assume that William Dudley’s magnificent set is that of a straight production – if not for the confusing sight of a laptop glowing cheerfully on the upstairs landing. This, it turns out, is just one of many little modern details, like the drinks cabinet, which contains a TV on which Lavinia’s husband George is dying to watch the cricket.
This new production is a unique and irresistible take on a classic play. The excellent cast not only give great performances, but are also clearly just having a great time – and their enthusiasm is more than a little infectious. I really enjoyed the comic opportunities offered by the inventive am dram twist, and of course we can’t forget the main event, which is Oscar Wilde’s brilliant and very funny script. All in all, The Importance of Being Earnest makes for an evening of fun and laughs, and you can’t ask for more than that.
The Importance of Being Earnest is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford, until 26th September, before continuing its national tour.