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Review – The Importance of Being Earnest – English Touring Theatre at the Playhouse, Liverpool

IT’S often said that comedy is a serious business, and it is of course very true. Oscar Wilde subtitled The Importance of Being Earnest “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”, and whilst this may at first glance seem to be just another witticism on top of all the linguistic humour in the piece, it speaks volumes about his intentions in writing it.

Critics of the day were at something of a loss for words, in large part missing the point entirely, that it is in the overt shallowness of the characters and their obsession with seemingly trivial matters that the serious messages of the play are hidden in plain sight.

Whilst it is certainly a very funny play indeed, the real cleverness is in the biting satire with which Wilde exposes both the faults and insecurities of the society he found himself living amongst and ultimately oppressed by. The skill in successfully directing it lies largely in trusting the author and letting the words do the work.

It is clear that director Denzel Westley-Sanderson has absolute faith in Wilde’s text, and he does indeed allow the piece to speak for itself. He has put together an absolutely top-flight cast, whose timing and characterisations are almost uniformly outstanding. Lily Arnold’s set and costume designs are stunningly stylish, and along with movement and choreography from Tinovimbanashe Sibanda create a world of elegance and affluence against which the absurdity of the characters and the irony of the situations really stands out.

Here and there Westley-Sanderson has made the odd tweak – cucumber martinis (without cucumber) replace the traditional sandwiches and Algernon dabbles in painting rather than the piano – but wherever there is a small twist to the original it is only to add a little playful in-joke.

Gender substitution is nothing new in theatre, so there is small surprise in casting Dr. Chasuble as a woman. The appearance of Anita Reynolds and Joanne Henry flirting with each other as Chasuble and Miss Prism feels like exactly the sort of thing that Wilde might have done if society had permitted – heaven knows – he was already in enough trouble at the time.

It is hardly a surprise either to see Daniel Jacob, AKA Vinegar Strokes, as Lady Bracknell. The formidable martinet forever associated with Dame Edith Evans has been played in the past by no less than Dame Hilda Brackett and, more recently, by David Suchet in full drag but, whilst it is a tempting idea, it does run the risk of slipping into Pantomime Dame territory. Upholstered like a Victorian Chesterfield, Jacob calls to mind the song Stately as a Galleon as he sails across the floor, and it is an impressive performance, although somehow it feels as though it belongs in a different production and is perhaps the production’s only slight misfire.

The absolute joy of this show is in the gleeful verbal sparring accompanied by beautifully choreographed stage movement, which keeps everything going like a Viennese musical clock. Abiola Owokoniran and Justice Ritchie as Algernon and John, and Phoebe Campbell and Adele James as Cecily and Gwendoline are of course doing most of the heavy lifting in the text, with Reynolds and Henry’s Chasuble and Prism keeping things in check. Meanwhile Valentine Hanson is absolutely priceless as both the butlers Merriman and Lane, seemingly omnipresent and offering as much comment with his face as with his words.

The Importance of Being Earnest is produced by English Touring Theatre, Leeds Playhouse and Rose Theatre, and after a week of performances in Liverpool it ends this six-venue tour with a fortnight in Kingston upon Thames from 1st November. The tour is accompanied by a photographic exhibit showcasing a selection of images from Black Chronicles – The Missing Chapter, curated by Hackney’s Autograph Gallery.

Star rating: 4 stars

Review by Nigel Smith

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