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Oscar Wilde’s much-loved masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest has returned to the West End as part of a year-long celebration of the revered playwright at the Vaudeville Theatre.
Oher productions in this sumptuous season of Victorian melodrama have included A Woman of No Importance, Lady Windemere’s Fan and An Ideal Husband – and now, rounding out the series, is Earnest – a delectable feast of mistaken identities, crossed wires and wonderful romance.
The plot of The Importance of Being Earnest concerns itself with two English gentlemen – Jack and Algernon – who both separately lead double lives.
Jack, who for the most part lives in the country, has invented an unscrupulous younger brother called Ernest in London, allowing Jack to visit the capital at a moment’s notice under the pretence he’s gone to get his brother out of his latest scrape. Instead, Jack assumes the identity of Ernest when in the city, and has fallen in love with Gwendolen Bracknell, Algernon’s cousin.
Algernon, meanwhile, has invented an invalid friend called Bunbury who lives in the country, visits to whom he uses as an excuse to escape unwanted obligations of high society London. He calls this pastime “Bunburying” and his interests are piqued when he learns that Jack is also a “Bunburyist”. When he discovers Jack has a young ward, in the form of beautiful heiress Cecily Cardew, he vows to visit Jack’s estate under the guise of his fictitious brother in order to woo her.
Throw in Gwendolen’s formidable mother (the iconic Lady Bracknell), a few cases of mistaken identity and Wilde’s trademark tongue-in-cheek satire on Victorian sensibilities, and you’ve got the recipe for a farcical comedy of epic proportions.
As with all productions in this stunning Oscar Wilde season, Earnest is presented with an all-knowing wink to the audience. It knows exactly what it is doing, and knows that (in all likelihood) the vast majority of audiences already know the story too, so it simply lets you enjoy the ride.
The set is stunning, shifting from Algernon’s drawing room in London to Jack’s country manor with surprising ease. Much is made of the gardens in Jack’s estate, with the serving ensemble often finding themselves tangled in the overgrown bushes as they traipse back and forth delivering refreshments to the aristocratic leads.
Wilde’s characters often shift from the maniacal to the sublime, with little in between – and nowhere is that more the case than in Earnest. Here though, the characters are deftly handled. The cast are on fine form, flitting between frenzied lies and subtle displays of romance, affection and warmth.
These moments are most effective with Jack, who is driven to hysteria as the lies about his fictitious brother crumble around him; while Cecily and Gwendolyn (who are both mistaken about the fact they are engaged to a Mr Ernest Worthing) almost go postal (with hilarious effect) as they vie for the affection of an ultimately make-believe suitor.
Lady Bracknell’s iconic “A handbag?!” line is delivered without as much shrill as audiences are used to, but it’s a welcomed change – adding a nuanced subtlety to the role which becomes even more apparent in the third act, as she pontificates on high society manners.
Fehinti Balogun and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd star as Algernon and Jack respectively. They are joined by Sophie Thompson as Lady Bracknell, Pippa Nixon as Gwendolyn and Fiona Button as Cecily.
The principle cast is completed by Jeremy Swift as Reverend Chasuble and Stella Gonet as Cecily’s governess Miss Prism.
The ensemble includes Geoffrey Freshwater, Tim Gibson, Matt Crosby, Meg Coombs and Alana Ramsey.
★★★★★ “A MASTERPIECE OF SPARKLING WIT” – WhatsOnStage
★★★★ “BRILLIANTLY FUNNY” – The Times
★★★★ “MAGNIFICENT” – Sunday Times
★★★★ “CHARMING” – Evening Standard
★★★★ “TRIUMPHANT” – Arts Desk
The Importance of Being Earnest is now playing at the Vaudeville Theatre in the West End until 20 October 2018. You can see more photos from the production in our photo gallery here.
Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.co.uk