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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Harold Pinter


  Christine Kavanagh, Nigel Havers, Martin Jarvis and Cherie Lunghi/ Ph: Tristram Kenton

High-concept productions of Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece are nothing new. We’ve had single-sex casts, all-black casts and overtly gay interpretations. We’ve had male actors dragging up as Lady Bracknell. This time around, director Lucy Bailey has built her staging on the premise that older actors bring new depth to Wilde’s effervescent, aphorism-spouting characters. But how to justify such casting? Her solution is to place the play inside a creaky framing device, constructed with the aid of playwright Simon Brett, who contributes some new dialogue.
The Importance of Being Earnest is being rehearsed by an amateur dramatics society – the Bunbury Company of Players – whose members are well-heeled, well-spoken and knocking on in years. The action takes place in the elegant house of a long-married couple among them, which just happens to be exactly the kind of swishy Arts and Crafts-designed environment in which Wilde himself might have felt at home.
The big question, obviously, is why. Wilde’s play functions exquisitely well as it is. Indeed, I would argue that it’s unique among his dramatic output in that respect. It hardly needs gussying up with tired jokes about philandering leading men, small-town divas, and cut-price props and costumes. And it’s almost as if even Brett and Bailey secretly know this. While the opening scenes are laced with comic business about the cast scoffing the cucumber sandwiches – to the exasperation of the long-suffering stage manager – and Sian Phillips as an icily graceful grande dame playing Lady Bracknell, practising her famous line “A handbag?” later on the device sort of fizzles out and is pretty much limited to the men sneaking off to check the cricket scores on TV. You start to wait impatiently for the familiar plot to unravel, knowing that there are no real revelations in store, and that thanks to the capricious miscasting, it can only ever limp along.
For all that, though, it limps at a lick, albeit a lopsided one, thanks to the quality of the talent involved. On Williams Dudley’s painstakingly photo-realist set, smart and sunlit, with views of the lush English garden beyond the French windows, Nigel Havers as the raffish society swinger makes a smooth, witty Algernon, posing, preening and genially likable. Martin Jarvis as Earnest – who, in an additional layer of irony, played the role opposite Havers at the National Theatre back in 1982 – has just the right amount of crust, and he’s also the Bunbury Players’ patient director. Niall Buggy bumbles beguilingly as Canon Chasuble and a boozy old amateur stager who insists he’s BWP (Better When Pissed). Cherie Lunghi is tartly funny as Gwendolen, denying weight gain even as the seams in her costume pop. And Christine Kavanagh brings sexual voracity to the more usually girlish Cecily. Naturally, though, Phillips’ splendid Gorgon is the scene-stealer, swathing her steely snobbery in the plushest velvet tones. It’s all, frankly, pretty pointless, but there’s more than enough class here to guarantee that it can still raise an occasional smile.


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