The Importance of Being Earnest at Vaudeville Theatre
“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.”
So says Gwendolyn Fairfax in The Importance of Being Earnest, one of Oscar Wilde’s most revered comedies. And in the Classic Spring Theatre’s company’s new production, costume designer Mariella Slade has the style part down to a tee. As Sophie Thompson’s disapproving Lady Bracknell strides onto the stage in a hulking metallic chiffon dress, she is a gilded, armoured emblem of the aristocracy, the plumes on her hat resembling the billowing sails of the British Empire. And yet, like the rest of the playwright’s delightful roster of characters, for all her volume, Bracknell is full of hot air.
This farcical play follows the chaotic entanglement of two equally senseless bachelors, Algernon Moncrieff (Fehenti Balogan) and Jack Worthing (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), who both create alter-egos named Ernest in order to pursue more exciting lives. As the men attempt to win the hearts of two eligible ladies, Gwendolyn (Pippa Nixon) and Cecily Cardew (Fiona Button) respectively, their facades begin to crumble.
Thompson’s performance is initially not so much a show-stealer as a show-saver. The first act begins a little uncertainly – perhaps confused by hints of the homoerotic in the form of a series of on-stage kisses and strokes plonked unceremoniously into scenes – and as a result, the unclear chemistry between Balogan and Fortune-Lloyd slightly dampens the delivery of Wilde’s sharp script. Though Thompson’s portrayal is not as groundbreaking as it might be, her matriarchal dominance undoubtedly thaws the theatre, her well-timed transitions from booming bossiness into high-pitched horror causing the audience to erupt.
But if the first act just about finds its feet, the second act finds the funny. With a change of scenery Madeleine Girling’s set transitions from the sleek overindulgence of the city – fruit spilling lavishly from atop a grand piano – to the untamed wilderness of the country – the stage now decked in unkempt foliage, a tree creeping down rebelliously from the ceiling. And with this transformation comes also a change in pace. Nature breeds more primal urges, and this becomes clear in the hilariously hypocritical territorial aggression of the two men. Even more impressive are Nixon and Button, who shine as they clutch themselves in allusion to their desire for carnal satisfaction – nicely counterpointed by the more subtle frustration of Stella Gonet’s scatter-brained Miss Prism and Jeremy Swift’s emotionally inept Reverend Canon Chasuble, who skirt clumsily around their desires.
From here, conflict sparks glimmers of brilliance, Algernon’s charismatic confidence clashing with Jack’s gloriously silly tantrums. Food is used to great effect by director Michael Fentiman to feed these altercations, and while the men almost come to blows over the final muffin, Algy’s incessant scoffing an exercise in excess, the afternoon tea between their intendeds turns to full-on fruitcake demolition.
Though the audience are certainly not short of laughter, this is a staging which lacks a lightness of touch. Heavy-handed references to Wilde’s sexuality, though meant as an homage, muddle the tone of the production. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of joy to be found here in the timeless witticisms of one of the nation’s finest minds.
Photo: Marc Brenner
The Importance of Being Earnest is at the Vaudeville Theatre from 20th July until 20th October 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.