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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Importance of Being Earnest
Harold Pinter Theatre   Summer 2014

What seems at first in this all-star revival of Oscar Wilde's classic comedy to be the unnecessary gilding of an already perfect lily proves eventually not to harm the lily and to add an unexpected layer of delight. 

Simon Brett has written 'additional material' (as if Wilde needed the help) in the form of a frame in which Wilde's play is being put on by a provincial amateur drama society, and director Lucy Bailey begins the evening by overlaying the verbal wit with a raft of sight gags. 

At first the predictable business involving missing props and backstage soap operas comes across as a pale variant on Michael Frayn's Noises Off. But fortunately that stuff peters out quickly, leaving a pretty straight-forward presentation of Wilde's wit-filled text. 

And perhaps only then does the purpose of the frame, and its value, become apparent. Part of Simon Brett's fiction is that this am-dram group has been going for forty years, leaving its actors continuing to enjoy themselves in roles that they are probably too old for. 

And that means that the actual cast here at the Harold Pinter is made up of excellent actors who are ideal for the roles they play except for the fact that they are too old to normally be given a chance to play them. 

Brett's framing device gives them that chance, and if you overlook the fact, for example, that Wilde's twenty-somethings Algie and Jack are silver-haired, you can enjoy the style and technique that these veterans bring to the roles. 

Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis are actors of immense charm and comic skill, who in fact last played Algernon and Jack in 1982, and I doubt that the mere fact of being three decades younger made them very much better in the roles then that they are now. 

Cherie Lunghi and Christine Kavanagh are, let us just say, not the teenagers that Gwendolen and Cecily are, but they bring to their roles a mastery of the arch eyebrow, the dry understatement and the wicked zinger that younger actresses would be hard pressed to match. 

Of course Sin Phillips has essentially been playing Lady Bracknell most of her life, at least as far back as the television I Claudius in 1976, so it is a long-overdue delight to hear her speak the actual words and watch her carry her scenes with consummate ease. 

The stars are backed by other veterans – Rosalind Ayres, Niall Buggy, Patrick Godfrey – with equally reliable mastery of their craft. 

And so what seemed at first like a pointless gimmick turns out to be the opportunity for a very special production of The Importance Of Being Earnest – one that gives the actors one more chance to display their comic expertise and that gives the audience the chance to enjoy all that comic talent making the most, one more time, of Wilde's play.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Importance of Being Earnest - Harold Pinter Theatre 2014 

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