The Importance of Being Earnest review - July 2015

At the Savoy, Sondheim’s lyrics in Gypsy currently remind us that “you gotta get a gimmick” and in order to put Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest on in the West End, that would appear to be most true. Last year saw Lucy Bailey gather a group of older actors to perform the play as if they were an am-dram company at the Harold Pinter Theatre and now Adrian Noble has brought the play to the Vaudeville with the estimable David Suchet starring as Lady Bracknell – an eye-catching ploy if ever there was one.

And in some ways it is effective. Gliding around the stage like a well-upholstered Rolls Royce, dispensing withering looks with tightly pursed lips, the corseted Suchet cuts an imposing figure in Peter McKintosh’s Victorian country house design. And once the business of assessing the marital prospects for her daughter Gwendolen starts, a farcical twist to the humour comes into play especially once the question of money is raised, Lady B’s eyes gleaming at the prize as she scribbles furiously in her trusty notebook.

There’s interesting work around Suchet too in Wilde’s evergreen comedy. Michele Dotrice and Richard O’Callaghan invest Miss Prism and Reverend Chasuble’s putative relationship with a real flirtatious energy, a more sexual charge comes from the excellent Philip Cumbus and Imogen Doel as younger couple Algernon and Cecily whose instantly tempestuous amour fou gains a real currency here.  And if Michael Benz’s Jack lacks a certain gravitas that would make him more of an equal in the banter with Cumbus’ Algie, it is more than made up for by Emily Barber’s borderline-haughty Gwendolen who leaves us in no doubt as to who wears the trousers in that partnership.

But in all honesty, we gain little that is new from this production in all its traditional texture as Noble preserves the wryly-turned famous witticisms as if in aspic, with cucumber sandwiches and handbags all present and correct. And its one innovation is something that could easily be considered a retrogressive step – with so few well-written parts for older women, one can’t help but be a little dispirited to see an opportunity taken away from them here. For all of the undoubted enjoyment that comes from this production, one is left wondering what Noble and indeed Suchet will do to redress a gender imbalance which is tipped further the wrong way here.

1 July 2015, Vaudeville Theatre