Despite it being 123 years, almost to the day, since the debut performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, his works continue to charm audiences with their wicked satirical wit and The Original Theatre Company’s production didn’t disappoint. The tale follows Jack Worthing’s quest to marry his friend Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen. In order to do this, he must first gain approval from her formidable mother, Lady Bracknell, whose prime concern is Jack’s social standing and the respectability of his parents. This is difficult for Jack (who poses as Ernest whilst in London) as all he knows of his early years is that he was abandoned as a baby and found in a handbag at Victoria Station. Chaos and hilarity ensue as Jack’s town and country lives collide in Wilde’s ridiculous but masterful satire.
The warm setting of Algernon’s London flat, designed by Gabriella Slade, and the vibrant period costumes eased the audience quickly into Wilde’s fin-de-siècle high society world. The initial banter between Jack and Algernon, with japes about marriage, family and cucumber sandwiches, consolidated the strong rapport between the pair which was consistent throughout the play’s three acts. Thomas Howes – of Downton Abbey fame – was a brilliantly flamboyant and engaging Algernon, complimented well by Peter Sandys-Clarke’s endearing Jack. Kerry Ellis played an astutely domineering Gwendolen who initiated the high maintenance proposal that sets the ball rolling for the rest of the play. Gwen Taylor’s performance as Lady Bracknell, who is the play’s ultimate symbol of earnestness, was carried more by Wilde’s lines than her performance itself as she was less ruthless than in other adaptations of the play. Nevertheless, her biting jibes on the state of English society and frequent quips, such as “To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness”, received the best responses of the first act.
Energetic and entrancing throughout
Due to the play being split into three short acts and the fast-paced dialogue, acts two and three flew by in a farcical whirlwind. Particular highlights were performances from Geoff Aymer as Rev. Chasuble and Susan Penhaligon as Miss Prism, the double act between Gwendolen and “little” Cecily, Jack’s young ward, as they fight for their love interests, and the literal muffin fight between Algernon and Jack which was the pinnacle of the slapstick elements of this adaptation. Louise Coulthard was a superb Cecily, evoking all her precocious naivety yet still endearing us to her (slightly psychotic) romantic ideas.
The extent of the audience’s familiarity with this renowned tale was evidenced by the frequent laughter before lines had been fully delivered and is a tribute to the longevity of Wilde’s work. Energetic and entrancing throughout, this production certainly lived up to director Alastair Whatley’s coining of it as a “celebration for celebration’s sake”, reminding audiences in uncertain times, above all, of the importance of not always being earnest.