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.