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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Importance Of Being Earnest
Savoy Theatre Spring 2001

Oscar Wilde's essence-of-drawing-room-comedy is one of the most perfect plays ever written, with every single line a gem-polished aphorism or joke. A five-year-old, reading the script aloud stumblingly for the first time, would get laughs; and in expert hands it is an uninterrupted delight.

Which makes the unrelenting dreariness of this current production so deeply disappointing. Originating in Chichester in the summer of 2000, it had a brief London run and then spent six months in Australia where it picked up an entirely new supporting cast around star Patricia Routledge. And, although they all have solid credentials, the whole thing has the sad and dispirited feel of a third-rate provincial tour.

A belated plot outline: Jack and Algernon, two stylish young men-about-town, propose to two elegant young ladies, Gwendolyn and Cecily, each of whom believes (for complex reasons) that her suitor is named Earnest and is so enamoured of the name that she couldn't love him under any other. Satisfyingly unlikely plot twists and revelations allow all to turn out fine in the end.

Patricia Routledge (best known to Americans perhaps as the social-climbing Hyacinth Bucket in the British sitcom Keeping up Appearances) would seem born to the role of Lady Bracknell, Gwenolyn's mother and the voice of high society's disapproval of all this rampant youthfulness. And she does bring some interesting shadings to the role, playing her as somewhat more ironic and self-aware than most, while keeping her a gorgon of social probity.

But her impulse to round out and warm up the character means that she gives a more subdued performance than the role demands. Whatever "Earnest" is, it is not realistic drama, and Lady Bracknell is an artificial construct who must be played with a high degree of artifice. Play her as a real woman, and many of the key lines (as famous and eagerly awaited in their way as "To be or not to be") get swallowed or glossed over.

And, star role though it may be, Lady Bracknell is only onstage for two scenes. Even a more sparkling performance than Routledge gives couldn't carry the play if the rest of the cast don't do their part.

Charity requires me not to name any of the supporting actors, some of whom may work again. The Jack and Gwendolyn have occasional moments of stylishness, but the Cecily is a blank and the Algy mumbles, swallows his lines, and gabbles incoherently - surely the ultimate sin with Wilde. The rest of the cast range from invisible to embarrassing. Christopher Morahan is credited with direction, but there is little evidence that a director of any sensitivity has visited the production since Chichester.

There are laughs, of course - with that wonderful script it would be impossible for some of the lines not to score. But they do so despite the production, not because of it.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -The Importance of Being Earnest - Savoy 2001