Some plays are forever linked to a certain performer; others remembered for an immortal line. The Importance of Being Earnest faces a double challenge, forever associated with Dame Edith Evans and her formidable delivery of the ‘A handbag?’ line. It features in the subconscious so much that it’s almost possible to hear an audience’s intake of breath in anticipation of the line being delivered.
It also puts a show under considerable pressure to do something different but the New Wolsey Theatre’s latest productions resists such temptation, delivering a highly traditional production. It looks stunning, a drawing room opens up to reveal a rose-strewn garden before transforming again into a panelled study. It’s a bygone world of impeccable manners, clipped vowels and cucumber sandwiches for afternoon tea.
Mistaken identities, forbidden love, heritage and duty all conspire to thwart the romantic intentions of two young couples in Wilde’s convoluted plot.
Director Ellie Jones extracts some delightful performances from her cast with Mark Edel-Hunt and Tom Davey sparring nicely as Algernon and Jack. Esther Ruth Elliott and Nelly Harker also work well together as Gwendolen and Cecily, revelling in their respective loves for two differing Earnests.
So all sounds good and the design, direction and acting are all indeed first class. So why a sense of reserve? There are occasions in theatre when, despite the quality of what’s on stage, something doesn’t quite gel and it’s often hard to define quite what that ‘something’ is.
Despite it being an entertaining evening, the nagging question remains; does this production actually shed any new light on the piece? It’s a difficult puzzle, the piece is so rooted in the period that you can’t readily transpose it to another era or setting, but does this shackle make it harder to see the play afresh? Does it actually matter, or should we just enjoy the fact that this is a well-staged revival of a classic. It certainly entertains its audience but for this critic at least the answer to that conundrum remains unanswered.