Review: The Importance of Being Earnest, Harold Pinter Theatre

“It wouldn’t be like this at the National”

Does the West End really need another straight production of Oscar Wilde’s old war horse The Importance of Being Earnest? Apparently not, as the new productions lined up each have their own spin – 2015 will see David Suchet take on the role of the redoubtable Lady Bracknell for Adrian Noble and 2014 sees Lucy Bailey impose her own conceit onto the show which allows her to gather an ensemble of more seasoned professionals than might normally be expected to take on this play.

That she does with the help of extra material written by Simon Brett which sees this starry cast take on the mantle of am-dram society The Bunbury Company of Players who in turn, are putting on their take on Wilde’s play as part of their summer season. So before Algernon and Jack have even taken to the stage, we’ve been inducted into the mini-dramas of the company themselves – Nigel Havers’ lothario now having an affair with a third woman in the group, Siân Phillips and Patrick Godfrey’s long-married couple fussing and bickering, Cherie Lunghi’s would-be diva complaining about her costume not fitting… The scene thus seems set for a melding of onstage and offstage drama which would bring something new to this old classic. 

Sadly though, having set up this little den of intrigue, Bailey proceeds to pretty much ignore it as the Bunbury Players then go through an increasingly interruption-free dress rehearsal of the play which is as standard as they come. And in the first act, it is a pretty laboured interpretation too which takes a little too long to find its feet (two weeks of previews have passed, one more is to come) as the cast move from ‘amateur actors playing characters badly’ to simply playing the characters. Instead, the pleasures – if you are so inclined to find them – come mainly from Nigel Havers prancing around like a baby giraffe and shaking his well-conditioned mane at every conceivable opportunity, someone book him a shampoo ad quick.

Fortunately, the second act is much tighter, thanks to the sterling efforts of Lunghi as the sharp-tongued Gwendolyn Fairfax who brilliantly executes the faux politesse of her first meeting with Christine Kavanagh’s Cecily Cardew as they try and figure just which of them is engaged to the man they think is called Ernest. And the glorious Siân Phillips makes a very droll Lady Bracknell, reducing Rosalind Ayres’ Miss Prism to a quivering wreck with just one withering glance, relishing the bartering of the marital affairs of her charges with Martin Jarvis’ foppish Jack , yet still finding a touch of genuine deep emotion as the mystery of the baby in the handbag is finally resolved.

But all of the stories of the Bunbury Players that set up the play are forgotten, never mentioned again as the framing device is barely used again except to wrap things up in the final seconds. Which is a real shame as it just highlights the more interesting possibilities that Bailey could have run with here, especially with such a wealth of experience in her cast that is rarely tapped into. Instead, we just get yet another Importance of Being Earnest and not even one that is particularly worth getting that excited about. 

Ticket generously provided by Official Theatre

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £4 
Booking until 20th September and then touring to Bath, Brighton, Aylesbury, Richmond and Birmingham

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