Wilde's sparkling wit still glitters

The Importance of Being Earnest

Lichfield Garrick

*****

OSCAR Wilde's trivial comedy for serious people has been delighting audiences since 1895 and, incidentally, yours truly for half a century.

So reviewing it is rather seeing how well an old friend is doing, whether in rude health and spritely or looking a little tired and in need of a glass or two of Wincarnis;  this Middle Ground production is fizzing like a bottle of pop as Jim an ancient Post & Mail messenger used to say.

It sparkles and crackles with life managing to appear as fresh as a just picked buttonhole  and very much a contemporary play which is in part due to Wilde's beautifully crafted script and partly due to Michael Lunney's clever direction and design.

Not that that should be a surprise. As a young man my late father would never miss any film that featured Jimmy Cagney. He was a little put out with A Midsummer Night's Dream mind you but in general he knew just what he was going to get.

Miss Prism, Cecily, Algernon, Lady Bracknell, Earnest, Gwendolen and the Rev Chasuble discover the importance of being Earnest

I feel the same way about Middle Ground. You know what you are going to get and every so often they come up with a vintage production such as On Golden Pond or a particular favourite of mine Frankie & Johnny in the Claire de Lune. This is another memorable production with the wit and one liners delivered with razor sharpness in a perfoamnce which has developed a comfortable rhythm.

Diane Fletcher is a delight as Lady Bracknell, super snob and super schemer and no doubt a 19th century ancestor of Hyacinth Bouquet, slipping in one liners and put downs with the practised skill of a society guardian and defender.

Then there is her nephew Algernon, played with a self-centred splendid shallowness by Jim Alexander and his friend Ernest, or John, or is it Jack who is the offspring of a marriage between a left luggage office at Victoria Station (Brighton line)and a handbag.

He despairs at Algy's hedonism and deception with an imaginary friend, the sickly Bunbury, who has to be visited whenever Algernon wishes to avoid supper with  his Aunt or fancies a jaunt in the country.

Mind you Earnest is less than forthcoming about his own arrangements with one life on his country estate with his ward Cecily, played with determined innocence by the splendidly named Sapphire Elia, and another life in London where he is fatally smitten by Gwendolen , daughter of Lady Bracknell and cousin of Algy.

Beautifully played by Corrinne Wicks, Gwendolen has the problem of finding even a hint of independence under the daunting burden of being the daughter of the battleaxe that was Lady Bracknell along with he added task of making sure than she would end up married to Earnest whatever her mother, or indeed Earnest felt about it.

On Earnest's  estate is Miss Prism, governess to Cecily, prim and properly played by Sarah Thomas, who holds the terrible secret which affects the lives of everyone who counts - in Lady Bracknell's world servants and churchmen below the rank of Bishop obviously don't count.

VAGUELY PLAYED

The churchman in this case being the Rev Canon Chasuble, unworldly and quite vaguely played by David Gooderson, who has the ecclesiastical hots for Miss Prism – the Rev that is . . .not Mr Gooderson – while the servant is Rugeley actor Gerry Hinks who is no stranger to the Garrick having produced and acted in his own plays there.

Hinks starts off as Lane, the London butler of Algernon, who is very traditional, up market manservant with his own line in caustic comments.

He then reappears as Merriman the ancient and very shaky family retainer at Earnest/John/Jack's Hertfordshire estate.  Permanently wearing gloves, to perhaps hide some terrible skin disease or to keep out the chill, Merriman lets his feelings be known as he mutters his way around the stage in a wonderfully studied performance. His tea pouring is a frightening experience for anyone within shaking distance.

This is about the third Earnest I have seen in the past 18 months or so and although all were good this was perhaps the most enjoyable. It is light, well-paced and when Algy and Earnest find themselves fighting for their (love) lives it is like grown up school chums, a sort of up market William and Ginger on a great adventure while Gwendolen and Cecily plot and scheme not so much against them but to ensnare them beyond any hope of escape, a task made easier by Algy and Earnest's schoolboy level ploys.

The sets are simple, solid and effective and with such a strong cast this is Wilde at his witty best, a delight from beginning to end. To 20-10-12.

Roger Clarke 

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