Love, logic and language are thrown into the air to make one of the theatre’s most dazzling displays of verbal fireworks in Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, which returns to the West End (Vaudeville Theatre) in a new production, directed by Michael Fentiman, bringing the year-long celebration of Wilde to a close.
The story is based around two young men. There is the upright Jack, who lives in the country and in order to escape the drudgery of his highly conservative lifestyle, has created an alter ego, Earnest, who has all kinds of reprobate fun in London. Then there is his good friend Algernon, who comes to suspect that Jack is leading a double life when he finds a personal message in one of Jack’s cigarette cases. Jack makes a clean breast of his life, including the fact that he has a young and attractive guardian, Cecily Cardew, back on his estate in Gloucestershire. This pecks Algernon’s interest and uninvited, he turns up pretending to be Jack’s brother Earnest in order to woo Cecily.
In the meantime, Jack’s fiancée and Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen, has also arrived, and Jack admits to her that he is in fact not called Earnest, but Jack. Algernon, despite his better judgement, confessed to Cecily that his name is not Earnest either. This causes a good deal of trouble in our heroes’ lives as both women have a rather strange attachment to the name Earnest and cannot consider marrying anyone who does not go by that name. There is another impediment to the marriages, Gwendolen’s mother Lady Bracknell, who will not countenance her daughter marrying someone of Jack’s social status – he was an orphan who was found by his adoptive parents in a handbag at Victoria Station. But as Jack is Cecily’s guardian, he will not allow her to marry Algernon unless his aunt, Lady Bracknell, changes her mind. Needless to say all comes right in the end.
This is one of the most immaculately crafted stage comedies of all time, combining a labyrinthine plot, the seemingly irresolvable narrative of a farce and some of the wittiest lines ever written. But Michael Fentiman’s production is uneven very good in parts, strained at other times and generally needing a more nuanced and less heavy-handed approach. Fortunately, though this does not diminish the impact of the piece. Costumes and settings are stylish and kept in period, although there is a sense of modernity about the production.
Jacob Fortune-Lloyd turns suppressed fury into something hilarious and beguiling as the neurotic Jack. Fehinti Balogun, in his West End debut, is a louche and sensual Algernon, Pippa Nixon, meanwhile, makes a determined, whip-smart Gwendolen, prostrating herself across a grand piano or forcing food into sometimes unwilling mouths and Fiona Button a delightful Cecily. Geoffrey Freshwater is a wonderfully knowing manservant Lane, and Matt Crossley an oddly touching inappropriately named Merriman. Stella Gonet is a joy as Miss Prism, the upright tutor with a murky past, as is Jeremy Swift as the enraptured country cleric who adores her, The only disappointment is Sophie Thompson as an unusually youthful Lady Bracknell, tethered forever to an unseen invalid spouse, who overplays the role of the grand dame, over-extending her vowels and milking every ounce of the humour.
Despite its flaws, though, this is a production that will be enjoyed by most Wilde fans.
The Importance of Being Earnest
Plays at the Vaudeville Theatre until Saturday 20 September 2018.
Box office: 0330 333 4814
Photos: ©Marc BrennerLast modified: April 6, 2021