Alastair Whately directs Oscar Wilde’s superb crown jewel: The Importance of Being Earnest. The three-act play is revived at York Theatre Royal, retelling the excellent combo of love, society and false identities.
Centring around two friends, Algernon (Thomas Howes) and Jack (Peter Sandys-Clarke) the play follows the pitfalls of ‘Bumbrey-ing’: putting on false identities to excuse oneself from social events. The invented persona of Earnest proves more popular with two women than the real Jack and Algernon and hilarious antics ensue as both men perpetuate the lie.
The love-triangle-gone-wrong involves Gwendolen (Hannah Louise-Howell) and Cecily (Louise Coulthard). With the addition of Gwendolen’s well-to-do mother, Lady Bracknell (Gwen Taylor), the interplay of strong personalities is engaging, and wryly smug.
There’s a tight nine-person cast, and a simple stage but this play is all words. Wilde, naturally, masters the English language to produce fantastic prose. The first two acts of The Importance of Being Earnest fire off with a rat-a-tat-tat. The lines are well-written, but it’s the delivery that makes them. Algernon’s character is played for laughs, whether constantly eating or habitually flouting social norms. Howes is a standout here; producing scathing, casual remarks with a mouthful of muffin.
The young Cecily is also a whimsical character, fawning over her diary-entry romance with her girlish and ditsy voice. The more ‘straight’ characters of Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen and Jack bounce off the caricatures. This dynamic is done well in the catty fight between Gwendolen and Cecily where adding sugar to tea is a declaration of war. The dripping sarcasm makes a delightful scene.
The first and second acts make good use of these hyperbolic differences across the cast. The third act, however, loses steam. Where the jokes were witty and sharp initially, they soon became slapstick and farcical. The energetic scramble at the end to discover a key plot hook was sudden and seemed rushed. Algernon shirks his anti-society rhetoric and loses his wit in the process. What was certainly meant to be a great critique of Victorian-ish people who lose their youthful passions for the sake of stately home romance, didn’t hit the mark. Perhaps this is Wilde’s writing, but the ending felt forced and imprecise.
The costumes and set put the audience in the room. The three acts were staged in three grand places: a flat, a greenhouse and a library. Simple but refined and effective. One could feel the floorboards creak with nineteenth century well-to-do stature. Simon Shackleton as multiple butlers particularly added to this antiquarian feel. The other supporting characters, Miss Prism (Susan Penhaligon) and Rev. Canon Chasuble (Geoff Aymer) dithered a little however. Their side-romance and plot-support worked, but yet again struggled to find the balance between silly and satirical.
Verdict 3/5 Good
Joyful to watch, though tired towards the end. The Importance of Being Earnest is shown to be relevant and genius, even when a little too slapstick.
The Importance Of Being Earnest, Original Theatre Company, York Theatre Royal