earnest“Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?”

Because my background at university is in writing rather than reading (that is, a degree in Creative Writing instead of English Literature), there are many areas of the British literary back catalogue that I’m still woefully ignorant of. I can’t abide Dickens, still haven’t read any Austen, and perhaps most unforgivably of all, Oscar Wilde remains a huge blind spot. Oh I know who he was, could name you a number of his works, but I’d never seen any of them or known what they were about particularly.

But then it was announced that The Importance of Being Earnest was to be staged again at the Vaudeville Theatre in London, my friend Charlotte Blackledge (aforementioned in my previous theatre review) was understudying and spoke highly of the show and, perhaps most importantly, David Suchet – Poirot himself – was to be treading the boards in the role of Lady Bracknell. Grabbing hold of my other half, we descended on the city to spend a few hours in the company of some of Wilde’s most eccentric characters.

For those unfamiliar with the story (which included myself; I resisted looking up the plot before going), this is the tale of John “Jack” Worthing, a posh country fellow who escapes to the city every now and again under the impression that he’s visiting his brother, Ernest. As it is, he has no brother, and uses the name Ernest himself when in town. When his best friend, Algernon Moncrieff discovers that his name is really Jack, he finds the whole thing hilarious, although admits that he has an imaginary friend called Bunbury who is constantly sickly, allowing him to escape to the country from time to time.

Complications begin to arise when Algernon’s aunt, Lady Augusta Bracknell, and cousin, Gwendolen, arrive and Worthing proposes marriage to the young girl. Gwendolen however insists that she has always dreamed of marrying a man called Ernest… After an interrogation from Lady Bracknell, Worthing is informed that he will never be allowed to marry Gwendolen. Things become even more confusing once Worthing returns to his country home, where he finds that Algernon has turned up and proposed marriage to Worthing’s ward, Cecily … all the while pretending to be the previously unseen brother Ernest.

In typically farcical British fashion, the situations quickly become confused as two women now believe themselves to be engaged to a man called Ernest, of which there isn’t one. It may take Lady Bracknell to sort out the whole situation…

True to form, Wilde’s writing is mostly just a string of one-liners, everyone witty and smart and armed with the right quotable quip for every situation. (My girlfriend actually comments that this is one of Wilde’s flaws – every character sounds like him.) But the lines are genuinely hilarious – “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune … to lose both seems like carelessness.” – and even though it’s a play with a heavy emphasis on the spoken word rather than stage direction, it retains an enormous energy and the characters are larger than life, meaning the small cast fills the stage.

Suchet's crowning comedy role

Suchet’s crowning comedy role

There’s not a weak link among the cast, and every line is delivered with perfection. Imogen Doel is charming and cute as the ditzy Cecily, a girl who sounds somewhat dim but knows what she wants, and opposite her Emily Barber plays Gwendolen with a wonderful realism and gentle humour. Doing battle with the girls are the boys, Michael Benz (John) and Philip Cumbus (Algernon). Benz is evidently a master of playing the frustrated fop, and Cumbus has turned the performance of the lazy aristocrat into something of an art form. A particularly amazing scene involves them fighting over the muffins that have been served for afternoon tea, cramming so many in their mouths at a time that they can barely get the words out. Rounding out the main cast is Michele Dotrice, as governess Miss Prism, who still has the skills of comedy honed during her time on television, and it was wonderful to see her perform live.

But when it comes down to it, the show is absolutely stolen by David Suchet as Lady Bracknell, as I think is always going to be the way with Importance. Suchet makes a stunningly convincing battleaxe of a woman, and if you’ve ever thought him camp or hammy when playing Hercule Poirot, then this will make you consider that that’s probably quite a straight role in comparison. From the moment Lady Bracknell bursts onto the stage (which immediately got a round of applause from the audience), she dominates and you know she’s in charge. You can tell that Suchet is enjoying the silliness and he delivers every line and facial expression with absolute perfection. He has however given his own take to the famous line, “A handbaaaaag” which is less familiar, but everything else more than makes up for it. Never have I seen such an excellent performer of double takes.

The play will be screened live in cinemas around the country on the 8th October, and it runs in the West End until November, so there’s still plenty of time to see this show, which I really think you should. It’s fast, still funny over one hundred years after it was written, and cast to wonderful perfection. Do not miss out!