Review: The Importance of Being Earnest – played by immigrants at Tower Theatre

There’s a good reason The Importance of Being Earnest remains one of the most popular comedies in British theatre. It’s a very silly story about ridiculous people doing utterly implausible things, and yet for all its joyous irreverence, the play still has plenty to say about society, class and the judgments we make about each other based on little more than a name or birthplace.

It’s this last that most informs Pan Productions’ unique and memorable adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s classic. The company’s first production in English, its cast is made up entirely of immigrants whose first languages include French, Turkish and Greek. These actors may never have had to confess to being found in a handbag at Victoria Station, but they’ve all certainly had to explain and perhaps even justify where they come from, probably on more than one occasion. So it’s through their eyes that we see this very English comedy unfold, cucumber sandwiches and all, as friends Jack (Louis Pottier Arniaud) and Algernon (Duncan Rowe) pursue two women who know exactly what they want – and, more importantly, what they don’t – in a suitable husband.

There’s no denying that the vision of director Aylin Bozok is an unusual one, though that’s by no means a bad thing – after so many “traditional” versions of the play, a fresh take is more than welcome. The modern dress production retains Wilde’s script, albeit peppered with moments where the cast slip back into their native languages, but beyond that this interpretation bears little resemblance to the genteel Victorian drama we know. It’s still a comedy, yet visually and tonally the play is much darker than we’re used to; there’s a decidedly gothic feel to the production that’s unexpected, to say the least. The pace is also considerably slower, though there’s never any danger of the audience’s attention wandering – the deliberation that goes into each and every movement is fascinating, and ultimately proves to be a source of comedy in itself. (Who knew watching someone painstakingly lower themselves on to a sofa could raise so many laughs?)

Another intriguing, if slightly confusing, aspect is the suggestion that the characters, for all their wealth and social standing, have no control over their own story. Instead, that power lies with the omnipresent and slightly sinister character of the maid (Nea Cornér), who encompasses both manservants, Lane and Merriman, while also filling the role of a Greek chorus and a puppeteer who manoeuvres the characters on, off and around the stage. While this is an interesting take, at times it feels like a bit of a distraction – due in no small part to Nea Cornér, whose performance is completely compelling throughout. The problem is that the production is already so rich in detail that we have more than enough to look at and absorb, and by adding another element to it, we find ourselves at times not knowing quite where to look.

The cast are uniformly excellent, taking recognisable characters and breathing fresh life into them; particular highlights among many include Glykeria Dimou’s feisty teenager Cecily and Pinar Öğün’s perfectly poised Gwendolen. The actors are all clearly enjoying themselves with Wilde’s use of language, and this in turn allows the audience to hear the familiar text afresh. Some of the more famous lines are played down – Lady Bracknell’s appalled exclamation of “a handbag?!” is delivered by Ece Özdemiroğlu as little more than an incredulous and even mildly amused murmur – while others are elevated to new significance through deliberate mispronunciation and subsequent gentle correction by the rest of the cast.

Though it at times veers towards trying to do too much, this unique new take on The Importance of Being Earnest certainly hits the mark in terms of both entertainment and intrigue. It’s also a very polished and precise production, where every aspect has clearly been given careful consideration – which in turn leaves the audience with plenty to think about on the ride home and beyond.

The Importance of Being Earnest – played by immigrants is at Tower Theatre until 18th January.

Review: The Trials of Oscar Wilde at Greenwich Theatre

Exactly 124 years ago, on 3rd April 1895, the hearing of a libel case opened at the Old Bailey. The prosecutor was the renowned playwright Oscar Wilde; the defendant was the Marquess of Queensberry who, concerned by his son’s close relationship with the writer, had accused him in a note of “posing as a somdomite”. Outraged, Wilde sued for defamation, but the move backfired spectacularly; faced with overwhelming evidence that he was, in fact, homosexual – at that time an illegal act – he was forced to drop the case, only to be arrested immediately and sentenced just a few weeks later to two years hard labour.

Photo credit: David Bartholemew

The Trials of Oscar Wilde, co-written by John O’Connor and Oscar Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland, is based on court transcripts from the two trials, and charts Wilde’s rapid downfall. Just days before the libel case began, The Importance of Being Earnest had opened at St James’s Theatre, and Wilde was complacent enough to believe that his success as a writer would make for an easy win. The production – also directed by John O’Connor, with Eva Savage – sets the drama not in a courtroom but on a stage, and in Act 1 Wilde takes to it like a true showman. But over the next hour, his relaxed confidence is chipped away piece by piece, and the man who appears at his own criminal trial in Act 2, though still possessing the same sharp wit, appears shaken and humbled by his sudden fall from grace.

This dramatic transformation is captured to perfection in a brilliant central performance from John Gorick, who leads the four-man cast with effortless style. Around him, his fellow cast members slip in and out of a variety of costumes to play multiple different characters, with impressive versatility and more than a little humour; Benjamin Darlington and Patrick Knox have particular fun as a short-sighted hotel chambermaid and an Italian masseuse respectively. The real highlight of the play, however, is the clashes between Gorick and Rupert Mason, who plays both the defence lawyer who meticulously unravels Wilde’s libel case and the prosecutor who sees him condemned to prison. Though of very different temperaments, the men are equally matched in their skill as orators, and in their hands an encounter that could on paper have become rather dry crackles with tension.

Though it references it several times, The Trials of Oscar Wilde is not The Importance of Being Earnest. For one thing, there are considerably fewer laughs to be found in this tragic true story of a great literary talent brought down by society’s intolerance and prejudice. It’s also considerably more demanding for the audience; the play puts us in the position of the jury in both trials (though unfortunately we get no say over the final decision), and as such it demands our constant attention – just as would be the case in a real court, we have to stay focused throughout so as not to miss any name, date or other important detail. None of which is to say that the play isn’t entertaining – there are certainly moments of light relief, and the staging of the courtroom scenes is very well done.

Most of us know something of how Oscar Wilde’s story ended, but perhaps not so many are aware that in effect he set in motion his own downfall. This play fills in the gaps in a way that’s both educational and dramatically satisfying. A fascinating true story, very skilfully told.

Review: The Importance of Being Earnest at the Bridewell Theatre

After a long and stressful day, the Tower Theatre Company’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest was just what the doctor ordered. This absurd little story never fails to tickle me, and makes me curiously proud to be British – especially when done as well as it is here.

The story is probably familiar to most: Jack loves Gwendolen, who seems to return his affection – but only because she thinks his name is Ernest. Meanwhile Gwendolen’s cousin Algernon is setting out to seduce Jack’s ward Cecily – by pretending to be his younger brother, Ernest. Inevitably, the four lovers end up in the same place, pursued by Gwendolen’s mother Lady Bracknell… and chaos, confusion and a good deal of coincidence ensue.

Photo credit: Ruth Anthony
Photo credit: Ruth Anthony

It’s a play that demands to be hammed up, and everything about director Martin Mulgrew’s production is wildly over the top, while remaining perfectly polished. It also boasts a cast who know exactly how to extract maximum laughs from Oscar Wilde’s witty script: Bernard Brennan’s Jack is endearingly awkward, particularly when faced with Helen McGill’s Gwendolen, who’s definitely not backward in coming forward. (The same, incidentally, could be said for Karen Walker’s Miss Prism, who doesn’t try to hide her admiration for local vicar Dr Chasuble, played by Ian Recordon.) Imogen de Ste Croix’s Cecily is pure sweetness with just a hint of steely-eyed bunny boiler; her matter-of-fact account of how she engaged herself to the fictional Ernest three months before meeting him is a highlight. And Murray Deans almost steals the show with his thoroughly eccentric Algernon, whose sudden bursts of silent manic laughter are not so much charming as ever so slightly alarming.

I say he almost steals the show, because – as in pretty much any production of The Importance of Being Earnest – the stage really belongs to the formidable Lady Bracknell, played to perfection here by Helen McCormack. Lady Bracknell gets all the best lines, and McCormack delivers them with relish and expert timing, not to mention a suitably scandalised expression at the prospect of marrying off her daughter to a man who began life in a handbag.

Photo credit: Ruth Anthony
Photo credit: Ruth Anthony

The play has three distinct acts, and Jude Chalk and Bernard Brennan’s set is simple yet effective, adapting with minimal fuss behind a curtain at each of the two short intervals. Costume designer Haidee Elise has also pulled out all the stops to produce some stunning outfits, and not just for the ladies – Algy’s pinstripe blazer is quite a sight to behold.

After their week’s run in London, the Tower Theatre are taking the production to the USA. One can only imagine what Americans make of Wilde’s play, which paints an interesting picture of British high society – although having said that, I quite like the idea that they picture us Brits sitting around eating muffins in moments of crisis. If our friends overseas enjoy the evening half as much as I did, though, they’re in for a good time. Another high quality production from the Tower Theatre, The Importance of Being Earnest is hugely entertaining and quite, quite mad – just as I’m sure its writer intended.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: The Importance of Being Earnest at the Orchard Theatre

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.

Nigel Havers in The Importance of Being Earnest
©Tristram Kenton

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.

Christine Kavanagh in The Importance of Being Earnest
©Tristram Kenton

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.

Sian Phillips in The Importance of Being Earnest
©Tristram Kenton

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.