Earnest is still important

The Importance of Being Earnest: Oscar Wilde, Arts Theatre, Cambridge until Saturday November 10 No play is packed with more glittering wit than this.

The Importance of Being Earnest: Oscar Wilde, Arts Theatre, Cambridge until Saturday November 10

No play is packed with more glittering wit than this. It brims over with pithy artificialities and backhanded aphorisms that delight as they tumble thick and fast out of the script. Political swipes and in-jokes abound, even - according to some - the coded language of the 1890s gay world.

Peter Gill's production with Penelope Keith as Lady Bracknell doesn't reach for the high camp flamboyance that was in the Edith Evans film version. Lady Bracknell may be described as a Gorgon, but for me there's just a suggestion of a twinkle in the eye of this one - as there was with Margo in The Good Life. I rather think her Lady B is aware that much of what she says is know-all nonsense.

Penelope Keith plays her almost as if she's Oscar Wilde in elegant drag, caustically commenting on how things really work in London society. Funny, without going over the top. When she comes out with her observations - about which Belgravia street numbers are fashionable, that London is full of women who quite properly refuse to get a year older than 35 - she is consciously sending herself up.


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The best performances throughout come from the actors who seem to be sharing the joke with us Daisy Haggard as Gwendolen and the delectable Rebecca Knight as Cecily - who become the best of friends and the deadliest of foes within minutes in the garden over tea, for instance.

Played, as you'd expect, on elegant designed sets (by William Dudley) the most engaging moments are Lady Bracknell's relatively quiet interrogation of John Worthing (Harry Hadden-Paton) to make sure his family antecedents are up to his being allowed to marry her daughter. As a handbag foundling, clearly they are not.

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The garden scene, where the plot thickens, provides a new impetus, and in come the twinkling Miss Prism (a mischievous Janet Henfrey) and Tim Wylton's optimistic Rector, the Rev Canon Chasuble.

Best of all, though, is the unravelling in the third act. Penelope Keith is at her most skilled when working off all the other characters with Lady Bracknell desperately endeavouring trying to disguise that suddenly she's been wrong-footed.

There will be some for whom no rendering of the play can live up to how Edith Evans, Michael Redgrave, Margaret Rutherford and the rest did it. But there is more than enough that's fresh in this whimsical, lower key version.

Ivan Howlett

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