The Theatreguide.London Review
Importance Of Being Earnest
Vaudeville Theatre Summer 2018
The Importance of Being Earnest is the funniest, wittiest, most delighted-with-itself flamboyantly clever play ever written. Every single line is witty, and it is such a perfect gem that even inept acting or misguided direction could not destroy it.
And Michael Fentiman's production seems determined to test that hypothesis. Oscar Wilde ultimately wins the battle, because he is by far the greater artist, but it is touch-and-go for a while.
Programme essays by the director, Simon Callow and Giles Brandreth make it clear that this revival is built on reading Earnest's wholly heterosexual plot and aphorisms on life and love as code for the love that dare not speak its name.
That is not a particularly original thought, and what would later be called a camp sensibility unquestionably runs through the play.
But turning Earnest into an exercise in code-breaking actually reduces it rather than enriching it, and it makes nonsense of the play's central joke of boys and girls falling madly in love (in the conventional permutations), not just at first sight but at first hearing of each other's existence.
(Quick reminder: two men-about-town with far too much time on their hands fall for two girls who, for reasons of their own, are both determined to love only a man named Earnest. Satisfyingly unlikely revelations involving a handbag and a misplaced baby allow for a happy ending.)
Your heart sinks even before the play begins as a spotlight calls attention to a painting of what appears to be naked men wrestling on Algernon's wall and an invented scene has Algy (Fehinti Balogun) kissing a pretty boy and shooing him offstage before Jack arrives.
Algy will later kiss his manservant and openly ogle any bit of rough (servants, gardeners) who passes by, while Jacob Fortune-Lloyd's Jack always appears uneasy any time Algy gets too close.
Meanwhile Fortune-Lloyd never speaks directly to anyone he is onstage with, but turns face-front and shouts his lines to the back wall of the theatre, the way schoolkids are taught in their first theatricals.
And Sophie Thompson's Lady Bracknell shrieks every line as if trying to be heard over a crowd. (It turns out, actually, that a shrieking Lady Bracknell works, helping to underline her jokes, though one hundred and twenty-odd years have shown they hardly need the help.)
The girls fare a little better. Pippa Nixon doesn't seem sure whether Gwendolen is a harridan-in-training or a sheltered nice girl acting the way she thinks sexual desire is supposed to look, but she is funny in both modes. And Fiona Button as Cecily is refreshingly the only one onstage to have moments of behaving like a real live human being.
It has been a while since I have had to invoke Berkowitz's Law, that when everyone in a cast is bad, they are just following orders and the fault lies entirely with the director. By trying to impose a vision on the play that it does not want and by making his talented actors sometimes look like out-of-their-depth amateurs, Michael Fentiman does no service to play, actors or audience.
Fortunately, as I said, Wilde is a greater genius than Fentiman, and the play ultimately wins. There is much to enjoy in The Importance Of Being Earnest. But it is all in the writing, and it comes through in spite of the production, not because of it.
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