“This is a match that I wouldn’t encourage
Gwen wants a man, not a piece of lost luggage”
Musical adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest actually have a strong pedigree as a rather smashing version played at the Riverside Studios a couple of years ago but it is now the turn of Phil Jacobs to have his own stab as The All in One Theatre Company present his take on Ernest at Camden’s Etcetera Theatre. Filleted down to a single sprightly hour and liberally sprinkled with musical interludes, it is an undoubtedly chirpy and charming take on the story which ought to feel at home on fringes and in festivals across the land.
Jacobs has kept the basic structure of the play, in which Jack Worthing invents a roguish persona called Ernest in order to secure the hand of the fragrant Gwendolen Fairfax who will only marry a man of said name but finds his plans led awry by the arrival of his friend Algernon Moncrieff who is also posing as Ernest, in order to win the heart of Jack’s ward Cecily Cardew. A framing device of a modern version of Jack delving into the world of role-playing games doesn’t really pay off but nor does it really affect matters as Pamela Schermann’s production steams merrily on.
Samuel Harris provides an excellent anchoring strength as Jack, sweet of voice and lithe of stage presence, he is consistently good in a production that sees him rarely leave the stage but he is best when bouncing off of Linford Hyde’s louche muffin-munching Algernon. Hyde’s delivery is brilliantly done, almost cattish in its sharpness and comicly timed to perfection – a line about cufflinks is surely one of the funniest of the year. Ella Duncan’s spirited Cecily is good fun and whilst Cassandra Foster’s Gwendolen is prissily fine, she does play it a little straighter than the others.
Which is fine, except for the strongest moments in the show being when the silliness quotient is highest. Songs like Jack serenading Gwen by asking her how she’d react to names other than Ernest or Kerry Willison-Parry and Brian Eastty’s daffily adorable duet as Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble work really well as Jacobs’ ear for a cleanly simple melody is undoubtable. And if his lyrics don’t quite possess a Wildean sting (nor do they always scan particularly well), their rough-hewn quality is actually part of the charm and it’s an admirably brave choice to do away with Lady B’s handbag.
So a refreshingly fun take on a classic, even if it isn’t entirely perfect, and just the right size of tasty morsel for these busy festive times. Plus it has a most cleverly conceived marketing campaign (examples of which are above) which puts many a well-resourced theatre to shame.