Theatre Review: The Importance of Being Earnest – Theatre Royal, Glasgow

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By Émer O’Toole, Editor in Chief

It is difficult to determine why there is any need to alter a play that, in its original form, is practically flawless. Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play is so popular that it has had countless stage revivals as well as three screen adaptations in 1952, 1992, and 2002. Lucy Bailey’s revival of The Importance of Being Earnest gives Wilde’s most enduring play a contemporary update in an inventive attempt to sidestep audience concerns that Havers and Jarvis (aged 66 and 74) may be too old to play young bachelors.

The Importance of Being Earnest details the lives of two upper class bachelors, Algernon Moncrieff (Nigel Havers) and John Worthing (Martin Jarvis) who alter their identities in an attempt to pursue eligible- yet shallow- young women, Cecily Cardew (Christine Kavanagh) and Gwendolyn Fairfax (Cherie Lunghi), who adore the name Earnest.

The play opens with Nigel Havers sauntering on stage in a suit and bright red trainers, answering a mobile phone. It soon becomes clear that he will play Algernon (his-character-within-character), a role he has played for thirty years. We first meet the ‘Banbury Company’ during their final rehearsal of Wilde’s play which they have been performing for decades and, despite their advancing years, are unwilling to give it up. There is as much drama in the fictional cast’s lives as in the play itself. Costumes are still being fitted. Dicky is becoming increasingly agitated about the lack of cucumber sandwiches. Actors are sneaking alcohol between lines.

Novelist Simon Brett had the task of writing this ‘additional material.’ While the script keeps most of Wilde’s original lines, the offstage affairs, reluctant butlers and constant distractions aren’t developed enough to inject any real humour into the production. There may have been some audience members who were disappointed not to have seen a straightforward version of Wilde’s classic but in the second half it is very easy to forget the play-within-play concept and enjoy Wilde’s play for what it is.

Despite its minor flaws, The Importance of Being Earnest features an impressive cast of British actors. Reprising roles they first performed together in 1982, Havers and Jarvis have wonderful chemistry as the two Earnests. After performing the role in Washington to critical acclaim, Siân Phillips excels in the role of the intimidating Lady Bracknell and Carmen Du Sautoy’s plays the impossibly dramatic Gwendolin to charismatic effect. Rosalind Ayres gives Miss Prism the sternness her character needs and Christine Kavanaugh’s Cecily is appropriately simplistic and innocent, waiting for the day Earnest will propose to her.

Subtitled ‘a trivial comedy for serious people’, the story is both brilliantly witty and undeniably silly. This updated version of Wilde’s play that has endured — even though the Victorian audience it elegantly satirises is long gone— is worth seeing.}