Something quite astonishing hits the audience, metaphorically speaking, as this version of ‘The Importance of Earnest’ begins – the site of Nigel Havers entering the stage wearing bright red Nike trainers (or sneakers for our American readers)! What’s more, he is totally in character!! Oscar Wilde set the play in the late Victorian era, so why then the Nike trainers, one might ask. We also see Martin Jarvis wearing Ray Ban sunglasses and there is a television screen being switched on so that the cast can catch up on the latest cricket match. All very odd and confusing.
However, things become clearer as the play progresses. The red trainers are soon replaced with a proper pair of shoes, which is more in keeping with what we expect to see in such a setting - the morning room at a Manor House. We are actually witnessing a group of actors, ‘The Bunbury Company of Players’, who are getting ready to rehearse the famous Wilde comedy. The ‘Bunburys’ are similar to an amateur dramatic society, though with reputedly higher standards.
‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is a very familiar play and has been performed in the West End so many times (most recently at the Vaudeville Theatre in 2008) that a new slant is warmly welcomed - Simon Brett has written the additional material for this production. It would have been more warmly welcomed had the idea had been better executed, however. There was some playing up to the audience, but not enough, and we also could have done with more over-acting. After all, this is a comedy!
Once the play gets going, it remains mostly faithful to the Wilde original. It follows the story of two upper class bachelors, Algernon Moncrieff (Nigel Havers) and John Worthing (Martin Jarvis), who both create alternative identities in order to pursue their intended love interests. As their plan begins to collide, the formidable Lady Bracknell (Siân Phillips) instils terror in the pair as the real story of Earnest Worthing is discovered, along with an explanation of his heritage.
I’m sorry to single out Nigel Havers again, but he is on top form - being Nigel Havers. Over the years, we have come to know him playing a rogue, a cad, a cheat, a womaniser (usually all at the same time) and the character he plays here is no different. We last saw him in a very similar role on television only a few months ago, albeit set in modern day Manchester – in “Coronation Street”.
The star-studded cast, including the already mentioned Havers, Jarvis and Siân Phillips, plus Christine Kavanagh, Cherie Lunghi, Rosalind Ayres and Niall Buggy, carry out their duties very professionally. And that is the main problem here – we want more than a professional show. We want something extra, and I had to wait until half way through the play before I had my first laugh out loud moment. Up until that point, the humour had either seemed old-fashioned or predictable. But then, all of a sudden, it was as if a miracle had taken place – everything seemed to step up several gears all at once and the play became very entertaining. In the nick of time, too.
The scene with Cecily (John Worthing is her Guardian), played by Christine Kavanagh, and Gwendolen (Algernon Moncrieff’s cousin), played by Cherie Lunghi, where they enjoy a cup of tea with cake, was a total joy to watch. It was like a boxing fight, with punches being replaced with words. I was on the edge of my seat, wanting more, and getting more. A great highlight. Martin Jarvis also does well to steal one of the scenes, though this was more to do with what he was wearing than with his acting. To say anymore would spoil the surprise!
So it was a slow starter that eventually came together in fine form as the storyline unravelled. Of course, this is largely due to Wilde’s writing. In the end, the one-liners and put-downs were in plentiful supply, and my favourite has to be Lady Bracknell’s very sharp comment to Cecily: “Your hair seems largely as nature has left it.” Well said! Had there been more lines like that during the first act, I would have left the theatre a happier person. Instead, I went home with a very strong desire to purchase a shiny pair of red Nike trainers ...
"Those who love Wilde will feel similarly let down by this self-indulgent travesty of a masterpiece."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"If visitors to Paris's Père Lachaise cemetery currently hear a strange noise, it is that of Oscar Wilde's spirit loudly rebelling at the thought that his sublime comedy needs to be 'reimagined'."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The production left me with two main feelings. One is that the age-blind casting suits the slightly surreal Lewis Carroll aspect of the play's subversiveness. The second is that theatre is such a non-realist art that good acting can render age irrelevant."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Playwright Simon Brett has given Oscar Wilde’s classic a delightful new context and I don’t think I’ve enjoyed the play quite as much since the first couple of times I ever saw it."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"The great and good of British acting Nigel Havers, Sian Phillips, Cheri Lunghi and Martin Jarvis bring an Acorn Antiques quality to Oscar Wilde's famous play."
Neil Norman for The Daily Express