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The Importance Of Being Earnest Archive

For the archive we file reviews of several London productions of The Importance Of Being Earnest  together. Scroll down for the one you want, compare or just browse.

Savoy 2001 - Vaudeville 2008 - Riverside 2011 - Pinter 2014 - Vaudeville 2015 - Vaudeville 2018

The Importance Of Being Earnest
Savoy Theatre Spring 2001

Oscar Wilde's essence-of-drawing-room-comedy is one of the most perfect plays ever written, with every single line a gem-polished aphorism or joke. A five-year-old, reading the script aloud stumblingly for the first time, would get laughs; and in expert hands it is an uninterrupted delight.

Which makes the unrelenting dreariness of this current production so deeply disappointing. Originating in Chichester in the summer of 2000, it had a brief London run and then spent six months in Australia where it picked up an entirely new supporting cast around star Patricia Routledge. And, although they all have solid credentials, the whole thing has the sad and dispirited feel of a third-rate provincial tour.

A belated plot outline: Jack and Algernon, two stylish young men-about-town, propose to two elegant young ladies, Gwendolyn and Cecily, each of whom believes (for complex reasons) that her suitor is named Earnest and is so enamoured of the name that she couldn't love him under any other. Satisfyingly unlikely plot twists and revelations allow all to turn out fine in the end.

Patricia Routledge (best known to Americans perhaps as the social-climbing Hyacinth Bucket in the British sitcom Keeping up Appearances) would seem born to the role of Lady Bracknell, Gwenolyn's mother and the voice of high society's disapproval of all this rampant youthfulness. And she does bring some interesting shadings to the role, playing her as somewhat more ironic and self-aware than most, while keeping her a gorgon of social probity.

But her impulse to round out and warm up the character means that she gives a more subdued performance than the role demands. Whatever "Earnest" is, it is not realistic drama, and Lady Bracknell is an artificial construct who must be played with a high degree of artifice. Play her as a real woman, and many of the key lines (as famous and eagerly awaited in their way as "To be or not to be") get swallowed or glossed over.

And, star role though it may be, Lady Bracknell is only onstage for two scenes. Even a more sparkling performance than Routledge gives couldn't carry the play if the rest of the cast don't do their part.

Charity requires me not to name any of the supporting actors, some of whom may work again. The Jack and Gwendolyn have occasional moments of stylishness, but the Cecily is a blank and the Algy mumbles, swallows his lines, and gabbles incoherently - surely the ultimate sin with Wilde. The rest of the cast range from invisible to embarrassing. Christopher Morahan is credited with direction, but there is little evidence that a director of any sensitivity has visited the production since Chichester.

There are laughs, of course - with that wonderful script it would be impossible for some of the lines not to score. But they do so despite the production, not because of it.

Gerald Berkowitz

The Importance of Being Earnest
Vaudeville Theatre Winter-Spring 2008

What is surely the wittiest play ever written, with virtually every single line a joke or aphorism, is always well worth seeing, even in a production such as this one that takes a long time to get up to speed.

Oscar Wilde's plot - two guys chasing two girls, both of whom have it in their heads that they can only love a man named Earnest - is merely the skeleton on which to hang one languid and laid-back zinger after another. And even if they don't all score, the average is higher than just about anyone else can approach.

That said, I should warn you that Peter Gill's production starts very slowly, and for much of the first act newcomers to the play may wonder what all the fuss is about.

Algy (William Ellis) and Jack (Harry Hadden-Paton) are a little too aware of their own wit, and the actors tend to recite their lines portentously, pausing after each for laughter whether it comes or not. Daisy Haggard's Gwendolen is appropriately stylised and artificial, but with no one to bounce off, she seems to have come out of some other play.

Penelope Keith has clearly chosen to play the imposing Lady Bracknell more naturally than many of her predecessors, but in the first act she underplays almost to the point of invisibility. Even the classic line about the handbag goes by practically unnoticed.

Things perk up significantly in the second act, and are really rolling by the third. The scene between Gwendolen and Cecily (Rebecca Night) plays delightfully, both actresses hitting just the right note of stylised mock-sincerity. And the guys relax somewhat as well, Hadden-Paton in particular finding a buffoonish side to Jack that is both funny and endearing.

And by the time Lady Bracknell reappears to react to the convoluted working-out of the plot (Need I remind you that it involves a baby misplaced years ago by an absent-minded nurse?), Penelope Keith is in full flow, giving the star performance we were waiting for, and with everyone else keeping up with her.

So by all means go and enjoy the evening. Just be patient and sit through the slow start - the good stuff is coming.

Gerald Berkowitz

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The Importance of Being Earnest
Riverside Studios   Winter 2011-2012

The Importance of being Earnest, a brilliant mixture of elegant sophistication and preposterous nonsense, is the wittiest comedy in the English language. 'The play is a success,' said Oscar Wilde in an interview just prior to the premiere on 14th February 1895.  'The only question is whether the first night audience will be one.'

There are two major problems which face any revival. The first is the over-familiarity of the epigrams. (When Fay Compton forgot her lines at the Old Vic in 1960 she was prompted from the audience.) The second is the memory of definitive performances, many of them preserved in Anthony Asquith’s 1953 film: Edith Evans’s Lady Bracknell, Michael Denison’s Algernon, Joan Greenwood’s Cecily, Dorothy Tutin’s Cecily, Margaret Rutherford’s Prism and Miles Malleson’s Chasuble.

The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Iqbal Khan, at Riverside with Gyles Brandreth as Lady Bracknell, is a new musical. Douglas Livingstone, Adam McGuinness and Zia Moranne are not the first to turn Wilde’s comedy into a musical. There are at least 20 musical versions with such titles as Oh, Ernest, Bunbury, Who’s Earnest?, Wilde About Marriage, Mein Freund Bunbury, Found in a Handbag, Half in Earnest, Ernest in Love, Nobody’s Earnest, L’Importanza d’Essere Franco, The Importance, and Borne in a Handbag. None of them was any good, evidently.   

Wilde’s comedy is much diminished by being turned into a musical comedy. It doesn’t need songs. A lot of good lines are lost. Pleasant though the show is to watch in a fringe venue, there is no way that Livingstone, Guinness and Moranne are going to drive the play off the stage in the way that Oscar Straus’s The Chocolate Soldier (1908) and Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady (1956) drove Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man and Pygmalion off the stage for a considerable period of time. 

Noel Coward turned Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan into a musical, After the Ball (1954), with disastrous results. The only musical adaptation of Wilde’s plays to succeed is Richard Strauss’s opera, Salome (1905).

Lady Bracknell is a monster without being a myth, a Wagnerian gorgon, implacable in her snobbery and unashamedly mercenary. The role is part Queen Victoria, part Wilde, part transvestite.
Every actress who plays Lady Bracknell acts in the enormous shadow of Edith Evans's gorgon. The celebrated Evans upward inflection on A HANDBAAAG! is, probably, the most quoted and imitated phrase in British theatre.

There have been many actors who have played Lady Bracknell: Hinge and Bracket in London in a dreadful travesty, Jonathan Hyde in Glasgow, Quentin Crisp in New York, William Hutt in Stratford, Ontario, Bette Bourne on tour (who fooled the audience completely; they having no idea he was a man), Michael Fitzgerald in Bristol in an all-male production, and most recently, Brian Bedford in New York earlier this year. Geoffrey Rush has just opened in Melbourne. 

Wilde himself would have made a good lady Bracknell. Gyles Brandreth is much better than he has been credited. He looks like Queen Mary and plays it all quite straight.  Colin Ryan and Mark Edel-Hunt are personable Bunburyists. Flora Spencer-Longhurst is a delightful ward. Susie Blake (governess) and Edward Petherbridge (canon) have a gentle little song, It All Began in a Garden.

I leave the last words to Wilde. When he was interviewed by his lover, Robbie Ross, in the St James’s Gazette and asked what sort of play The Importance was, he replied: 'It is exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has a philosophy that we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.'

Robert Tanitch

The Importance of Being Earnest
Harold Pinter Theatre   Summer 2014

What seems at first in this all-star revival of Oscar Wilde's classic comedy to be the unnecessary gilding of an already perfect lily proves eventually not to harm the lily and to add an unexpected layer of delight. 

Simon Brett has written 'additional material' (as if Wilde needed the help) in the form of a frame in which Wilde's play is being put on by a provincial amateur drama society, and director Lucy Bailey begins the evening by overlaying the verbal wit with a raft of sight gags. 

At first the predictable business involving missing props and backstage soap operas comes across as a pale variant on Michael Frayn's Noises Off. But fortunately that stuff peters out quickly, leaving a pretty straight-forward presentation of Wilde's wit-filled text. 

And perhaps only then does the purpose of the frame, and its value, become apparent. Part of Simon Brett's fiction is that this am-dram group has been going for forty years, leaving its actors continuing to enjoy themselves in roles that they are probably too old for. 

And that means that the actual cast here at the Harold Pinter is made up of excellent actors who are ideal for the roles they play except for the fact that they are too old to normally be given a chance to play them. 

Brett's framing device gives them that chance, and if you overlook the fact, for example, that Wilde's twenty-somethings Algie and Jack are silver-haired, you can enjoy the style and technique that these veterans bring to the roles. 

Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis are actors of immense charm and comic skill, who in fact last played Algernon and Jack in 1982, and I doubt that the mere fact of being three decades younger made them very much better in the roles then that they are now. 

Cherie Lunghi and Christine Kavanagh are, let us just say, not the teenagers that Gwendolen and Cecily are, but they bring to their roles a mastery of the arch eyebrow, the dry understatement and the wicked zinger that younger actresses would be hard pressed to match. 

Of course Siân Phillips has essentially been playing Lady Bracknell most of her life, at least as far back as the television I Claudius in 1976, so it is a long-overdue delight to hear her speak the actual words and watch her carry her scenes with consummate ease. 

The stars are backed by other veterans – Rosalind Ayres, Niall Buggy, Patrick Godfrey – with equally reliable mastery of their craft. 

And so what seemed at first like a pointless gimmick turns out to be the opportunity for a very special production of The Importance Of Being Earnest – one that gives the actors one more chance to display their comic expertise and that gives the audience the chance to enjoy all that comic talent making the most, one more time, of Wilde's play.

Gerald Berkowitz

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The Importance of Being Earnest
Vaudeville Theatre  Summer 2015

The wittiest and most stylish comedy ever written is proving these days to also be indestructible. 

In recent years London has seen a campy musical version and a production that deliberately cast actors too old for their roles. And now we get a distinguished Shakespearean actor in drag. 

And you know something? Oscar Wilde's play holds up just fine, as uninterruptedly funny and delightful as ever. 

Quick reminder: Wilde's supremely silly plot has two idle-rich lads wooing two girls who have each gotten it into their otherwise empty heads that they can only love a man named Earnest, all under the baleful gaze of the disapproving-of-everything gorgon Lady Bracknell. 

Adrian Noble's production is built around the novelty of David Suchet (TV's Poirot) playing Lady B. But this isn't just gimmick casting. Suchet brings his considerable technical skill and wit to his drag portrayal, enhancing Wilde's comedy and adding his own without clashing with the play's tone.

Except for raising his voice to a fluttering alto, Suchet makes no real attempt to disguise his gender. His characterisation is three-quarters ageing drag queen and one-quarter Queen Elizabeth I, the imperiousness of the latter nicely balancing the hints of camp in the former. 

He's at his best and funniest when Lady Bracknell is unshakeably in control and in the rare moments when she is briefly thrown off balance. (Suchet attempts an original take on the iconic line about the handbag – exactly as difficult as an actor trying to find a new way to say 'To be or not to be' – and while it doesn't quite work, you mentally give him full credit for the try.) 

While this production could easily have been conceived just as a vehicle for Suchet, director Adrian Noble has put together an excellent cast and guided them to performances that easily match the star's and bring out all of Wilde's stylish wit. 

Indeed, the central romantic quartet are more successful than any I've seen before in individualising their characters so that they bounce off each other unusually well. 

Philip Cumbus makes Algernon a self-conscious wit, visibly dipping into his catalogue of prepared bon mots whenever there's an opening, while Michael Benz's Jack has to work harder to match him and, engagingly, to keep up with a plot that keeps running just ahead of him. 

Emily Barber's Gwendolen is very much her mother's daughter, enjoying the power over men that comes from standing up to them, while Imogen Doel's Cecily can be seen discovering the equal potency of acting more childish and innocent than she actually is. 

Meanwhile Michelle Dotrice shamelessly steals her scenes by making Miss Prism the most girlishly lovestruck of them all.

I can think of no more perfect bon bon for a summer's evening than this perfect comedy done so very, very well.

Gerald Berkowitz

The Importance Of Being Earnest
Vaudeville Theatre  Summer 2018

The Importance of Being Earnest is the funniest, wittiest, most delighted-with-itself flamboyantly clever play ever written. Every single line is witty, and it is such a perfect gem that even inept acting or misguided direction could not destroy it. 

And Michael Fentiman's production seems determined to test that hypothesis. Oscar Wilde ultimately wins the battle, because he is by far the greater artist, but it is touch-and-go for a while.

Programme essays by the director, Simon Callow and Giles Brandreth make it clear that this revival is built on reading Earnest's wholly heterosexual plot and aphorisms on life and love as code for the love that dare not speak its name. 

That is not a particularly original thought, and what would later be called a camp sensibility unquestionably runs through the play. 

But turning Earnest into an exercise in code-breaking actually reduces it rather than enriching it, and it makes nonsense of the play's central joke of boys and girls falling madly in love (in the conventional permutations), not just at first sight but at first hearing of each other's existence.

(Quick reminder: two men-about-town with far too much time on their hands fall for two girls who, for reasons of their own, are both determined to love only a man named Earnest. Satisfyingly unlikely revelations involving a handbag and a misplaced baby allow for a happy ending.) 

Your heart sinks even before the play begins as a spotlight calls attention to a painting of what appears to be naked men wrestling on Algernon's wall and an invented scene has Algy (Fehinti Balogun) kissing a pretty boy and shooing him offstage before Jack arrives. 

Algy will later kiss his manservant and openly ogle any bit of rough (servants, gardeners) who passes by, while Jacob Fortune-Lloyd's Jack always appears uneasy any time Algy gets too close. 

Meanwhile Fortune-Lloyd never speaks directly to anyone he is onstage with, but turns face-front and shouts his lines to the back wall of the theatre, the way schoolkids are taught in their first theatricals. 

And Sophie Thompson's Lady Bracknell shrieks every line as if trying to be heard over a crowd. (It turns out, actually, that a shrieking Lady Bracknell works, helping to underline her jokes, though one hundred and twenty-odd years have shown they hardly need the help.) 

The girls fare a little better. Pippa Nixon doesn't seem sure whether Gwendolen is a harridan-in-training or a sheltered nice girl acting the way she thinks sexual desire is supposed to look, but she is funny in both modes. And Fiona Button as Cecily is refreshingly the only one onstage to have moments of behaving like a real live human being. 

It has been a while since I have had to invoke Berkowitz's Law, that when everyone in a cast is bad, they are just following orders and the fault lies entirely with the director. By trying to impose a vision on the play that it does not want and by making his talented actors sometimes look like out-of-their-depth amateurs, Michael Fentiman does no service to play, actors or audience. 

Fortunately, as I said, Wilde is a greater genius than Fentiman, and the play ultimately wins. There is much to enjoy in The Importance Of Being Earnest. But it is all in the writing, and it comes through in spite of the production, not because of it.

Gerald Berkowitz

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