Being one of the classics of the English repertoire, The Importance of Being Earnest is probably the theatre ghost of today – it never really leaves the English stage and has been celebrated for over a hundred years here and abroad. Oscar Wilde’s wildly entertaining masterpiece grabs us with aristocratic wit and never misses the comic mark, despite its emotional depth being a shallow pond in a theatre-park of seriousness. The play uses its biting satire to reflect the aristocracy of its Victorian days, and Adrian Noble’s production at the Vaudeville Theatre certainly finds the frivolity and rhythm that make this play such a joy to watch.
It might not wish to convey a deep message, but it is nonetheless highly entertaining and clever in many ways. John (Jack) Worthing and his friend Algernon are notorious bachelors in London making the most of what society offers. Jack goes under the name of Ernest in town and Jack in the country, and when Algernon realises he has a young ward, he pretends to be Jack’s brother and sets out to do mischief in the country. All gets out of hand as lovers are disguised and misunderstood, and the true importance of the name “Ernest” is discovered. The Importance of Being Earnest is highly farcical but beautifully written with its delightful characters and confusion. Adrian Noble’s production taps at the heart of the play’s life – it is a sprightly, entertaining production that finds a balance between farce and truth, exaggeration and human nature. The comic timing and sense of language and fluidity build throughout, which makes the piece not only smooth to watch but also highly engaging. The performances are excellent, though to an extent heightened and at times a tad too stylistic. Playing for laughs is an obvious and useful device in such a production but at times it’s pushed a bit too far. That said, what is worth applauding is the actors’ total commitment throughout – this is a play that could easily fall flat on its face, hard and ugly, but Noble’s direction and the sheer talent of his performers drive it upwards towards brilliance.
Philip Cumbus is exceptionally spontaneous and thrilling to watch as the notoriously charming and mischievous Algernon. There is an unforced ease and playfulness about him, down to impeccable detail, which drives the play into joyous madness and fun. Imogen Doel is excitingly sprightly as Cecily, and together with Michael Benz (John Worthing) and Emily Barber (Gwendolen), the young couples take charge of the performance with confidence and humour. The ticket-magnet of the show is undoubtedly David Suchet as the dragon aunt Lady Bracknell, a part that has been defined by many of the greatest British actresses and actors of our time. Suchet is firstly wonderful in a dress and with ladylike manners, but it is his crisp humour, commitment and sternness that suit the temperament of the character so well. His appearances are wonderfully clever and witty and, with an air of having the audience right in his pocket, mesmerised by his sheer entrance, we are at his comical mercy. It is a wonderful cast, and though the physical, comic expression grows with speed throughout, it is highly entertaining to watch.
Peter McKintosh’s period design is beautiful but lets the play get on with what it needs to do – by setting it in its historical context we allow ourselves to be swept away by the wit of Wilde’s own world, which is refreshing the further into the performance we get. Noble has created a pleasant night of hysterical laughter with a clear taste for comic timing and flavour in Wilde’s work. It’s on point, sharp and wildly funny though lacking some edge and depth. But hey, it’s okay to have a great laugh every now and again without having to reflect too much. It’s a great play for switching off the London insanity pulse and just indulging in some good old-fashioned frivolity.
The Importance of Being Earnest is playing at the Vaudeville Theatre until 7 November. For more information and tickets, visit The Importance of Being Earnest website.