The classic Oscar Wilde tale of imaginary alter-egos and marriage proposals runs at Royal & Derngate until Sat 12 May 2018
Jack Worthing loves Gwendolen Fairfax, and they intend to be married – but there’s a few obstacles in the way. One is Gwendolen’s overbearing mother, Lady Bracknell and her refusal to give consent thanks to him not having the family she would desire, but also, that Gwendolen thinks his name is Ernest. Tangle that up with his friend (and Gwendolen’s cousin) Algernon Moncrieff’s desire to meet Jack’s ward – the beautiful Cecily Cardew – and you have a scene ripe for eloquently spoken chaos and bun fights.
Oscar Wilde’s hilarious play pokes loving fun at the upper classes of Victorian society and their conventions. Not able to carry on his life in London without a valid excuse to leave his country house behind, Jack Worthing has invented his “brother” Ernest, a cad about town who, conveniently, never visits, but who has captured the heart of Gwendolen Fairfax, a woman whose goal it is to marry a man named Ernest.
Algernon, meanwhile, has an invented character of his own, his poor sick friend Mr Bunbury, whose illnesses seem to appear whenever there’s a family meal Algernon would rather avoid. Between the two gentlemen, there are quickly two dishonestly achieved proposals, before a standoff with the dominating Lady Bracknell, and a neat conclusion thanks to an old handbag.
As the foppish dandy Algernon, Thomas Howes steals each scene he’s in, whether that’s as he restlessly lounges on every available piece of furniture, or is scoffing his way through cucumber sandwiches, he manages to be the centre of attention. His sometimes fractious relationship with the more upright Jack Worthing (Peter Sandys-Clarke) is played beautifully, with a great chemistry between them, especially in the more physical moments. Despite their repeated lies and ungentlemanly-like behaviour, both fall effortlessly into the lovable rogue category, and we’re rooting for them to get their happy endings.
Oscar Wilde loved a strong female character, and The Importance Of Being Earnest spoils us with four wonderfully written women. Gwendolen Fairfax (played here by Hannah Louise Howell in a role share with Kerry Ellis) and Cecily Cardew (Louise Coulthard) spar in a game of verbal tennis, battling not only each other but the complex and difficult lines. Howell’s Gwendolen bristles with a confidence that only the upper classes of society could pull off, nose pointed clearly in the air, while Coulthard’s Cecily is playful and charming, the epitome of innocence and a romantic to boot.
Lady Bracknell (Gwen Taylor) is not the sort of woman who would permit her only daughter marry someone who was found in a handbag at Victoria station, and she commands each room and the people in it with a quiet, dignified power. Subtle in a way I imagine most wouldn’t expect Lady Bracknell to be, Taylor avoids the cliches of certain lines (most notably “A handbag?!”) instead opting to keep the matriarch softer than those who’ve gone before. In fact, her hat and enormous bustle dress are probably more imposing than she is.
Miss Prism, Cecily’s tutor and companion, played by Susan Penhaligon, is hilarious; her facial expressions and physical humour mean she finds her laughs outside of Wilde’s wit, and her flirtation with the socially awkward Rev. Canon Chausable (Geoff Aymer) got some of the biggest laughs of the night.
Each of the three short acts begins, and ends, in stillness as the curtain rises and falls – a sort of tableau of Victorian life – a maid smoking, Algernon munching, calmly, on muffins. The set from Gabriella Slade is a thing of beauty, draped in glorious touches – from Algernon’s lushly furnished sitting room to the painted garden chairs and hanging baskets of Jack Worthing’s garden, and finally, his stately country sitting room – the backdrop of golden-tinged Art Nouveau walls being used cleverly for all three locations.
Packed with lines instantly recognisable to even those who aren’t remotely familiar with Wilde’s work, there is little wiggle room for things to go wrong with The Importance of Being Earnest. Thankfully, this production from The Original Theatre Company, directed by Alistair Whatley, has nothing to fear, as it’s in the hands of a superb cast, who tackle the ebb and flow of Wilde’s writing with ease. The first act is a little slow going, lacking pace both from the cast and the plot, but it quickly improves, and along with it, the volume of the audience!
A charming piece of classic theatre that is still deliciously witty almost 125 years after it was first performed.
The Importance of Being Earnest is on the Royal stage until Saturday 12 May. Tickets – priced from £10 to £33 – can be booked by calling Box Office on 01604 624811 or online at www.royalandderngate.co.uk.
Performance: Tues 8 May 2018, Royal Auditorium, Northampton
Rebecca is a theatre lover originally from Birmingham. She founded On Stage Northants in 2017, and is passionate about promoting Northampton performing arts. Can usually be found behind the scenes, and occasionally in front of them too. Bec also runs Rebel Peacock Creative Media.