The Importance of Being Earnest
A wonderfully witty and erudite play from the master of clever words given a new and highly entertaining twist.
There are many examples of the ‘play within a play’ style of production; some, like ‘The Woman in Black’, use it as a narrative retelling, others, like ‘Peter Pan Goes Wrong’ use it to justify a farcical and somewhat madcap mashup of a familiar tale. For this version of The Importance of Being Earnest, the ideal is used to couch the well known and much loved Oscar Wilde play within the confines of an amateur theatre group whose own traditions appear to be even more deep rooted than the original.
Brilliantly imagineered (and yes, that is a word, made up by the Disney Corporation but I’m having it now) by Lucy Bailey, the fictitious Bunbury Company of Players have performed the play so many times that they no longer treat it with the reverence oft reserved for Wilde’s work and instead demonstrate that familiarity indeed does breed contempt. The curtain rises, not on the plush London home scene of John Worthing, but on the cast & crew of the Bunburians hurriedly readying themselves for final dress rehearsals. There are many in-jokes, some based on Wilde’s prose but many seemingly on previous years’ performances to which we, the audience, have not been privy – fear not however as these jokes play so heavily on the stereotypical theatre ‘types’ that they are still heartily funny.
Pitching the performance within the guise of the amateur group’s production allows total freedom with the casting; knowing as we do that the cast are all long term statesmen of the Banbury Company we are no longer expecting John or Algernon to be the 30-something men about town, nor do we insist that Gwendoline and Cecily are innocent, fresh-faced young ladies (although I’m positive the beautiful Christine Kavanagh could easily pass for 18 any day of the week). Through very clever scripting there is thus a subtext of additional humour derived from these clear diversions from the original character profiles which gives a delicious overlay of extra fun.
Of course, most people coming to see The Importance of Being Earnest are already knowing of its story - the light hearted shenanigans of two London based gents who enjoy living double lives, free to create alter-personas through which they can enact their fantasies safe in the knowledge that they can, at any time, 'kill off' their doppelgangers and revert back to their true characters. With twists aplenty, coupled with the juxtaposition of both leads wanting to assume an 'Earnest' character to capture the affections of their betrothed but realising that neither is very ‘earnest’ at all, it is the quintessential piece of Wilde’s social commentary.
It is wonderful to see such stage & screen luminaries as Nigel Havers, Martin Jarvis, Rosalind Ayres, Nigel Anthony, Carmen Du Sautoy and the irrepressible Sian Phillips on stage at Darlington Civic; a collective worthy of gracing any theatre in the country and one which, simply to observe them at work is worth the ticket price alone.