Beginning last October, Dominic Dromgoole (former Artistic Director at Shakespeare’s Globe) set out to bring a year of Oscar Wilde’s most well-known Victorian plays to the West End Stage. Through his new company, Classic Spring, A Woman of No Importance, Lady Windermere’s Fan and An Ideal Husband have all run at the Vaudeville Theatre, and the season now concludes with Wilde’s final play: The Importance of Being Earnest. A three-act comic farce, written swiftly during the summer of 1894, it borrows many names and ideas from Wilde’s associates and places he knew – and it is now considered to be his masterpiece.
The story begins in London, as Jack Worthing has come from the country to propose to Gwendolen Fairfax – a cousin of his friend Algernon Moncrieff. Whilst she is all in favour of this union, her mother (the formidable Lady Bracknell) isn’t quite satisfied with the answers he provides to her interrogation. The major sticking point is his unknown heritage – he was abandoned as a baby and grew up never knowing who his parents were. An added complication (forced out of him by Algernon) is that Jack is actually known as “Ernest” in town, as he invented a wayward brother as an excuse to leave his country home more often; Algernon has done something similar, in making up an oft-ill friend Bunbury so he can escape from society whenever he needs to. And when he learns of Jack’s young ward (Cecily) it seems Bunbury might be getting another outing – leading to chaos & confusion in Hertfordshire…
Given that the play has been revived numerous times, as well as being adapted for film, TV and radio, you might think it was about time for a new take on the material – if nothing else, to prove how a 124-year-old play can (in Dromgoole’s words) “speak to us piercingly and profoundly today”. But in Michael Fentiman’s strictly period production, it’s hard to see what we’re meant to care about, and what is supposed to resonate with us. It’s a pleasant enough thing, but there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about it. It also rather limps to its climax, trying to play on the drama rather than the farce, which results in the audience being miles ahead of what’s actually going on.
It has been suggested by a few that there is a homosexual subtext to the play (for example, ‘Earnest’ may have been some kind of code-word), but rather than really try and play with this idea, they briefly flirt with it by way of a choreographed transition between acts two & three – as well as Algernon being slightly overfamiliar with his manservant, Lane.
I love a good period drama as much as the next person, but this traditional production does seem rather out of place in the current climate. For some people this will be a good thing, as it’s absolute escapism from the latest bad news story, and I’m not saying we don’t all need a good laugh every now & again – once it gets going, and it’s less reliant on the knowledge of Victorian good manners, there are a great many chuckles to be had. However, if I’m to see this play again I’d like it to at least try and say something to me between the laughter.
The set is beautifully & ornately designed, starting in Algernon’s flat in act one and moving to Jack’s Manor House for acts two & three (first in the garden and then inside). Similarly, there are some rather sumptuous costumes on display – from Algernon’s smoking jacket to Gwendolen & Lady Bracknell’s ensembles. Unfortunately I can’t credit the designer(s) as, disappointingly, neither Classic Spring nor Nimax have chosen to share the list of creatives for this production.
Fehinti Balogun is a dapper and playful Algernon, bringing a Wildean flavour to the play, and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd leads well as the put-upon Jack/Ernest. As Lady Bracknell, Sophie Thompson is as radiant & hilarious as ever, with a definite hint of Downton’s Dowager Countess coming through in her performance. Where the production really comes alive is the second act, with the introduction of Fiona Button as Cecily. Button’s portrayal of the young ward gives us a tantalising glimpse of what might have been, had the concept been slightly more adventurous, as Cecily strains at her leash and tries to forge her own destiny. Button’s comic timing is impeccable, and her solo moments are a singular treat.
My verdict? A pleasant enough production, with some great laughs along the way, but it doesn’t feel particularly new – Fiona Button stands out.
Post courtesy of London Box Office: https://www.londonboxoffice.co.uk/