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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Importance of Being Earnest
Vaudeville Theatre  Summer 2015

The wittiest and most stylish comedy ever written is proving these days to also be indestructible. 

In recent years London has seen a campy musical version and a production that deliberately cast actors too old for their roles. And now we get a distinguished Shakespearean actor in drag. 

And you know something? Oscar Wilde's play holds up just fine, as uninterruptedly funny and delightful as ever. 

Quick reminder: Wilde's supremely silly plot has two idle-rich lads wooing two girls who have each gotten it into their otherwise empty heads that they can only love a man named Earnest, all under the baleful gaze of the disapproving-of-everything gorgon Lady Bracknell. 

Adrian Noble's production is built around the novelty of David Suchet (TV's Poirot) playing Lady B. But this isn't just gimmick casting. Suchet brings his considerable technical skill and wit to his drag portrayal, enhancing Wilde's comedy and adding his own without clashing with the play's tone.

Except for raising his voice to a fluttering alto, Suchet makes no real attempt to disguise his gender. His characterisation is three-quarters ageing drag queen and one-quarter Queen Elizabeth I, the imperiousness of the latter nicely balancing the hints of camp in the former. 

He's at his best and funniest when Lady Bracknell is unshakeably in control and in the rare moments when she is briefly thrown off balance. (Suchet attempts an original take on the iconic line about the handbag – exactly as difficult as an actor trying to find a new way to say 'To be or not to be' – and while it doesn't quite work, you mentally give him full credit for the try.) 

While this production could easily have been conceived just as a vehicle for Suchet, director Adrian Noble has put together an excellent cast and guided them to performances that easily match the star's and bring out all of Wilde's stylish wit. 

Indeed, the central romantic quartet are more successful than any I've seen before in individualising their characters so that they bounce off each other unusually well. 

Philip Cumbus makes Algernon a self-conscious wit, visibly dipping into his catalogue of prepared bon mots whenever there's an opening, while Michael Benz's Jack has to work harder to match him and, engagingly, to keep up with a plot that keeps running just ahead of him. 

Emily Barber's Gwendolen is very much her mother's daughter, enjoying the power over men that comes from standing up to them, while Imogen Doel's Cecily can be seen discovering the equal potency of acting more childish and innocent than she actually is. 

Meanwhile Michelle Dotrice shamelessly steals her scenes by making Miss Prism the most girlishly lovestruck of them all.

I can think of no more perfect bon bon for a summer's evening than this perfect comedy done so very, very well.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Importance of Being Earnest - Vaudeville Theatre 2015

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