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Edward Franklin as Algernon, Cathy Tyson as Lade Bracknell, Darren Bennett as Lane, Martha Mackintosh as Gwendolen and Fela Lufadeju as Ernest . . . or is it John. Pictures: Tom Wren.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Birmingham Rep

****

OSCAR Wilde’s gloriously trivial comedy for serious people can hold its own quite comfortably against pretty well anything, even a glittering, rather ostentatious makeover in the new production at Birmingham Rep.

It is a delightful old friend, so well-known and so familiar that a ripple of anticipation runs through the audience as each classic line approaches, completed by a wave of comfortable laughter. Indeed a lady nearby was laughing before the lines were even delivered. That’s dedication to the cause.

Director Nikolai Foster used art nouveau furniturLady Bracknelle to anchor the play in its time - it premièred in 1895 -  but the most striking feature is a huge box of a stage with angled roof, along with walls and floor covered in large mirrors – but more of that later.

Isla Shaw’s designs also saw some interesting costumes. Most characters carried an impression of late Victorian dress, except that John Worthing often looked rather like an extra from a 1970’s pop video – his leather panted mourning dress in particular, setting him as a time traveller from a different age.

Cathy Tyson as the formidable, sharp-tongued, Lady Bracknell

But this is Wilde at his finest, able to resist any attempt at introducing any hint of a contemporary feel and director Nikolai Foster might have made his mark on the setting but is wise enough to bow to Wilde’s mastery when it comes to the words.

In Wilde's satire of the Victorian upper classes every character has its own importance but towering above them all is Lady Bracknell.

Cathy Tyson glares down superbly in a masterful performance from her lofty heights as the formidable guardian of all things right and proper in late Victorian society, turning snobbery and class into an art form. She has some of the classic lines of theatre and delivers them with haughty relish.

Edward Franklin is a wonderfully flippant Algernon, hedonistic in a most genial way, treating life as a game, and, as befitting a well-bred man about town, he is also well broke.

Fela Lufadeju is a more serious sort of chap as Ernest Worthing, or John if you happen to meet him in the country. With an 18 year-old ward and household to maintain as John, he is a respected country gent and hardly lets his hair down when he steps off the train as his supposedly carefree wicked younger brother Ernest in London, as seen by his desire on a night on the town to do . . . nothing.

Love interest comes from Lady Bracknell’s daughter Gwendoline, played by Martha Mackintosh as confidently and dogmatically as one might  expect of a young lady well-schooled by her mother in the niceties of the social mores and fashions of the age. Ernest is besotted by her.

Then there is John’s ward Cecily played with a lovely mix of innocence and romantic fantasy by Sharan Phull. She sweeps Algernon off his tan and yellow shoed feet – Algernon also being Ernest at this point, even though Ernest has just died of a severe chill in Paris.

Cecily and Gwendolen, meanwhile, are both engaged to the same Ernest . . . even though the said Ernest, dead or alive, doesn't actually exist - oh, do keep up at the back!

And among the gay young things and their identity crisis a more mature romance is blossoming between the pedantic and rather dull Canon, Dr Chasuble, played in a nicely measured way by Dominic Gately, and Cecily’s governess, the rather fussy Miss Prism, who might have a future career as a Margaret Thatcher lookalike, played in a sterling no nonsense manner by Angela Clerkin – no nonsense that is until her dramatic revelation at the climax.

And fussing around it all is Darren Bennett as first butler Lane in London, upper class and rather superior, and then Merriman, a more expressive butler, with a touch of flounce, in the Worthing country estate –  a pair of servants always dignified and always, one feels, rather amused by and disdainful of the antics of the upper classes.sisters

The cast of eight work well together with some exquisite timing as Wilde’s celebrated lines bounce between them delightfully as Algernon and John dig themselves deeper and deeper into their romantic holes until we reach a pleasantly happy ending and the discovery of the importance of being earnest.

Martha Mackintosh as Gwendolen and Sharan Phull as Cecily discover they are both engaged to . . . Ernest, while an amused Merriman looks on.

It is a play which is always a pleasure to watch – I am well into double figures and I never tire of Wilde’s wonderful wit and clever construction. It might be lightweight but by golly when it is well done, as here, it is great fun.

As for the mirrors . . . Foster saw them used to good effect in a fashion show and saw them as a “valid way to look at the play in a contemporary context”. In his programme notes he declares that with the period furniture the audience feel part of the 1895 world of Wilde but because they will be reflected in the mirrors “hopefully it draws them deeper into the space and makes them think about themselves a bit more as well.”

Whatever. Call me old fashioned but I found the set distracting, an unnecessary intrusion into one of the favourite comedies of the English stage.

Opinion among the audience seemed divided. There were the traditionalists backing my view that if it ain’t broke why fix it and those who thought the glitzy set gave a sparkling modern feel to a stage classic - old-style Wilde in a new-style setting. No one, it seems, was ambivalent.

Beyond the mirrors, director Foster has created a very funny, excellent Earnest but, on reflection, one might say, he has also achieved something more than that, he has got the audience talking and thinking about the production – and, after all, isn’t that something theatre is all about. To 24-09-16

Roger Clarke

14-09-16 

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