‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ review

Theatre, Comedy
2 out of 5 stars
The Importance of Being Earnest, Classic spring
© Marc Brenner

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

This queered-up take on WIlde’s most famous play doesn’t really work

Few plays seem less likely candidates for a radical queer rewrite than 'The Importance of Being Earnest’, the latest of Oscar Wilde’s works to be exhumed by Dominic Dromgoole’s Classic Spring company. Unless you're determinedly reading in biographical knowledge of Wilde, this effervescent romantic comedy doesn't much suggest simmering forbidden love. I'm all for mining a subtext, but director Michael Fentiman’s approach rubbles the structure of an exquisitely formed play.  

It's also not actually radical: this is, mostly, a very straightforward take, with mannered performances, period costumes and posh drawings rooms, the latter invaded by flowerbeds and hanging boughs when we move to the country in the second half.  

There, young hero Algernon appears to fall instantly in love with his friend Jack's pretty young niece Cecily – but we've also seen him smoochily flirt with Jack too, and he also seems to be in a relationship with his aged manservant. You could strain the interpretation: wooing Cecily is all just an act, really he pines to be with a man. But that's not actually what we see; there are no moments of yearning or sadness here. 

And it warps the plot. Spoiler alert! If Algernon is in love with Jack, the final revelation that they're brothers turns out to be, well, pretty dark. And this production absolutely does not wrestle with an incest subplot in its cheerful final moments...  

The other option is that Algernon is just an absurdly horny flirt, and quite irresistible to everyone, no matter age, class or gender. But this just doesn’t come through in Fehinti Balogun's prosaic performance. He makes heavy weather of Wilde's light-as-air dialogue; lines should float then sting, but Balogun often slugs it out with Jacob Fortune-Lloyd's strenuously exasperated Jack.  

Luckily, the play itself is obviously and eternally very funny. Even these often over-done performances still hit plenty of gorgeous, gleeful moments.  

Sophie Thompson's Lady Bracknell hasn't a shred of subtlety, but there's pleasure in following the absurd quavering tones of her plummy voice, from a disapproving alto to obsequious shrillness; she also appears to swallows her own double chin in a moment of snobbish horror. The younger women, meanwhile, have a comically extreme degree of lust: they clutch their wombs and rub against pianos and make eyes wildly.  

Fiona Button is the stand-out – by some distance – as a bright, engaging Cecily; she allows the character to be absolutely as doolally as written, while also nailing her bossy efficiency as a full-on flirt, with very clear ideas about love and how it should play out. Shame she's the only one, in this muddled take.

By: Holly Williams

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