How appropriate it is, in a play all about the living of double lives and putting different versions of ourselves on display, for the most showy female role (and one of the most famous in all of theatrical comedy) to be played by a revered senior actor David Suchet. A global celebrity thanks to his quarter of a century association with Agatha Christie's Poirot on television, he now swaps the dapper signature moustache for rouge to play Lady Bracknell — and she's nothing to do with the eponymous town in Berkshire. In fact she might wince at the connection.
Instead, this Bracknell is a battle-axe gorgon — like Margaret Thatcher in period costume — who is interfering, waspish, snobbish and utterly, utterly hilarious. Though some might wonder just why a man has to claim a role written for a woman — when there are many, many more roles available to male actors than women — it puts an interesting spin on the play's own playful games with identity, and quite how much we owe to birth and how much to (re)invention.
Jack Worthing has made something of himself, despite not knowing his own parental origins beyond that he was found as a baby in a handbag that was left in a cloakroom at Victoria station. Now, as he courts Lady Bracknell's daughter Gwendolen Fairfax, he has some explaining (and social climbing) to do. But then no one is quite who they seem in this play, not least the imperious Lady Bracknell herself, who reveals (in a line sometimes cut in the play) that she married to money rather than was born to it.
Former RSC artistic director Adrian Noble gives the play a smooth, slick flow and the production is certainly handsomely appointed in Peter McKintosh's chocolate box sets. This may be an old-fashioned West End evening, but thanks to the contemporary feeling performances of Michael Benz, Philip Cumbus, Emiy Barber and Imogen Doel as the young suitors, it comes alive with fresh delight.
This is a well-worn play but not quite worn out — and thanks to the freshness of those performances, as well as the parallel delights of Michele Dotrice and Richard O'Callaghan as a governess and vicar respectively, it is a true delight.
"Watching Suchet in action, I was put in mind of some magnificent figurehead on an ancient sailing-ship that seems to be strangely listing. The dramatic vessel itself, tightly structured and sealed with aphoristic wit, is pretty much unsinkable."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Michelle Dotrice is bliss as Miss Prism giddily wobbling girlish infatuation for Richard O'Callaghan's Canon Chasuble. Warmly recommended."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Even if occasionally the mood seems closer to Charley’s Aunt than Oscar Wilde, this is a thoroughly enjoyable production and, at its centre, lies a superb performance by Suchet that reminds us that even Lady Bracknell contains a certain impishness beneath her elegantly frocked hauteur."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Many will wish to see the show chiefly for the sight of Mr Suchet in bustle and bosom and he does not disappoint."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"I suspect that I personally never need see this play again. But Suchet fans won’t be disappointed."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard