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The Importance of Being Earnest, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Oscar Wilde
Directed by Henry Filloux-Bennett

Pros: A fun and novel staging of an excellent play.

Cons: Some of the comedy in this fringe production’s transfer is lost in the bigger space.

Our Verdict: A good production worth seeing, although it drags a little in places.

Courtesy of London Theatreland
The Importance of Being Earnest, subtitled ‘A Trivial Play For Serious People’ is almost certainly Oscar Wilde’s most famous play. Its opening night was the climax of his career, but also the catalyst of his downfall: a thwarted attempt by a detractor at throwing a bunch of rotten vegetables at the playwright turned into a court case, which turned into a counter-court case, which led to more court cases still, and eventually ended in Wilde’s incarceration for ‘gross indecency’. Despite its poignancy in this respect, The Importance of Being Earnest remains a play celebrated for its light-hearted humour and of course Wilde’s legendary wit. However, much of its humour relies on the subtleties and trivialities of Victorian society, making it perfect for intimate venues. Arcade used this very well in their Old Red Lion production, receiving glowing reviews and securing a transfer to the Theatre Royal Haymarket before the start of the One Man, Two Guvnors residency. But after their success in the intimate confines of Islington’s favourite pub theatre, how did they fare in the echoing chasms of the Theatre Royal?
Well, it is undeniable that something was lost in the transfer. The staging of this production relies on the expressive faces of the actors, and the subtitles of the way they interact. Unfortunately, this type of humour does not reach all the way into the galleries and as a result, the play sometimes seems to lack pace in places.
That being said, the production still has many strengths. Henry Filloux-Bennett’s staging is novel, and leaves behind many of the clichés associated with this play. In return, we are offered many refreshing layers of modernity. Clever use of walkie talkies, mobile phones and games consoles offer a 21st century twist, and a total disregard for the fourth wall shines a new light on this much-performed play. The design and costumes form another strong point; leopard print, top hats, and astroturf form an unexpected but ultimately effective combination. Crucially, these eccentric styles are used to magnify the eccentricities of the already outrageous characters. Particular mentions go to the role of Reverend Chasuble (Morgan Thomas), who in this adaptation is made to be almost unbearably camp and flirty – a twist which fits in nicely alongside Miss Prism’s (Rachel Nussbaum) infatuation with him. In fact, the sexual tension between Prism and the Reverend is perfectly captured and whenever the characters are both in the room, the air is virtually throbbing with expectation.
This quality of the acting is, in many places, excellent. The characterisation is certainly a strong point, although as mentioned before, the pace of the play loses out in the larger space. Some excellent performances are still derived nonetheless, particularly from Harriet Ballard, who plays Cecily Cardew as a psychotic teenager obsessed by her ambition of making Ernest her husband, whether he likes (or indeed knows) it or not. Indeed, the seduction scene between Cecily and Algernon Moncrieff was one of the funniest in the play. James McNicholas delivers a very good rendition of Algernon – an outrageous dandy whose favourite hobby is ‘Bunbury-ing’ (using an imagined friend in poor health to get him out of unwelcome social obligations). Another excellent performance comes from Owen Roberts as Lane, the Merriman. This is almost a non-role in the play, but Roberts turns his character into one of the most memorable and endearing, partly by breaking down the fourth wall early in the play and forming a fixation with the audience.
Overall, this is a very good production of Wilde’s classic, which has some good performances and interesting comedic touches which make it quite unlike any version of The Importance of Being Earnest which you will have seen. However, this is a show which was designed for a more smaller venue, and transferring it to the larger space means that much of the intimacy which gives this production its character is lost. As a result, some of the action seems slow and the comedy is, in places, muffled. I sincerely hope that as the cast get used to the Theatre Royal, they recapture some of the magic – this is a production which has to potential to be excellent, and it certainly deserves to be so.

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The Importance of Being Earnest runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 11th February 2011.
Box Office: 0845 481 1870 or book online at http://www.trh.co.uk/book_tiobe.php

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