Richard Fitch’s blisteringly energetic production of The Importance of Being Earnest at Theatr Clwyd takes Oscar Wilde’s magnum opus, holds it up to the light, decides that it’s actually perfectly good as it is, but places it back down on the stage with a youthful enthusiasm that its creator would’ve revelled in.
The hallmarks of the play are all still there: the period setting, the lavish 19th century costumes, the acerbic and witty dialogue, the thematic intent to scratch the veneer of Victorian society to see what lies beneath. Everything that somebody going to see The Importance of Being Earnest would expect to see is there, but Fitch has given the presentation a jolly good shake and as a result, gives the play a fresh lease of life.
Wilde’s twisty plot involves two friends who adopt double lives in order to try and secure the hand of the women they love. Former foundling Jack Worthing is known as Jack while at his country residence, but Ernest when in the town. His close pal Algernon Moncrieff discovers his friend’s deceit and decides, for kicks, to visit Jack’s country pile pretending to be his fictional brother Ernest. Confusion and hilarity grow out of this dual identity crisis as their respective fiancées discover their beaus’ real names, and Jack and Algy try their best to cover up and turn things around. All the best drama is based upon a lie.
Lady Bracknell, Hilary Maclean, Algernon, James Backway and Cecily, Robyn Cara
Essential to making this play work is getting the characters of Algy and Jack right. They have to be supremely likeable and endearing, despite the deceitful scheming they partake in, and this is where Fitch (and his casting director Suzy Catliff) strike gold. James Backway is incorrigibly lovable as the laid-back wag Algy, a man who drapes himself across furniture like a Victorian playboy with no airs and certainly few graces. It can be tricky for actors to deliver their performance while troubled by props, but Backway takes this all in his stride, devouring a plate of cucumber sandwiches while reeling off Wilde’s witty repartee with the greatest of ease. Backway has a physical confidence which comes of experience working at Shakespeare’s Globe and for the National Theatre in the West End, and is a scorching ball of energy at the heart of the play.
Matt Jessup’s Jack has the greatest journey in the play, beginning as a controlled if nervy gentleman with his eye on the prize (ie, the Honourable Gwendolen Fairfax) but exploding into a frenzied hyperactive merry-go-round as his web of lies begins to disintegrate around him. Jessup has fantastic comedy chops, communicating so much frustration, embarrassment and exasperation with well-chosen and timed facial expressions. He’s also a great physical performer, enhanced by his modest height (there’s a wonderful moment where Jessup jumps up to kiss Emma Denly’s Gwendolen on the cheek!) and he’s simply a joy to watch throughout. The real pleasure in watching Jessup is that he never stops being there for a moment, even when others have the limelight. He can let his exasperation stray a little too close to the top sometimes, but it’s all in keeping with Worthing’s spiralling predicament.
Emma Denly gives a striking performance as Gwendolen. She is noticeably more cowed and deferential to her mother Lady Bracknell in Act 1, but as soon as Gwendolen is free of her domineering matriarch’s presence, she steps up to become a mini version of mum, affecting an imperious superiority dented only by the character’s driving desire to get what she wants. Denly is adept at getting across Gwendolen’s elegant society standing as well as delivering Wilde’s comedy gifts perfectly. She’s most definitely a talent to keep an eye on.
Elsewhere, recent drama school graduate Robyn Cara gives Cecily Cardew a buoyant naivety which leaves her vulnerable to the overbearing charms of her governess Miss Prism as well as the visiting Gwendolen. One of the highlights of the play comes in Act 2 when Gwendolen and Cecily lock verbal horns over afternoon tea, the witty, catty ripostes coming thick and fast like a Victorian Ab Fab. Denly and Cara are ferociously good here, delivering withering put-down after vitriolic insult like a game of slanderous pass the parcel. All credit to Wilde for writing such scorching material, but it takes two adept performers to make the scene sing.
Nick Harris’s dual turn as Moncrieff’s town valet Lane and Worthing’s country butler Merriman is another corker. Director Fitch has taken care to make sure the butlers do not steal the show (particularly Merrimen, who has more to do and whose slapstick could quite easily take the eye), but Harris makes the most of the cracking opportunities given him. His facial expressions are priceless.
The characters of Miss Prism and Rev. Canon Chasuble are in support of the main action, although Prism has a key role to play in the denouement. Melanie Walters is stridently coquettish as Miss Prism (her right-handed fast-fanning at the end of Act 1 is given added depth if you read the etiquette notes in the programme), but Darren Lawrence struggles to communicate Chasuble with any great strength, and at times proves difficult to make out. Nevertheless, his delivery of the blasphemous “Oh Christ…” is perfectly timed and delivered.
The part of Lady Bracknell is one of theatre’s towering roles, and much of its notoriety is down to Edith Evans’ colourful performance in Anthony Asquith’s 1952 film adaptation. Anybody that knows The Importance of Being Earnest to any degree is probably waiting for what’s known as the “handbag scene”, and any actor in the part must either dread or relish tackling this most legendary of lines. Evans’ wire-draw delivery (“A haaaand-baaaaaaaaag?!”) is a tricky fence to leap, but Hilary Maclean vaults it without breaking into a sweat, underplaying the line so that everybody can just get on with the play. Her Lady Bracknell is suitably indomitable, tyrannical and intimidating, swishing around the stage in a stunning scarlet wine dress and inescapable feathered hat, delivering waspish put-downs and sharp-witted observations on class and society like a gentrified Noel Coward.
A stand-out of the entire production is the energy and vitality director Richard Fitch has infused this 122-year-old text with. The youthful cast bound around the stage with such bounce and enthusiasm, it’s as if the spirits of Frank Spencer and Buster Keaton have blessed the production. This vigor is embodied in the opening and closing of each Act, with the cast making the scene changes accompanied by beefed up renditions of The Blue Danube Waltz and The Ride of the Valkyries. In a startlingly refreshing departure, the scene change for Act 2 takes place at the end of Act 1, and the audience is left with the image of Miss Prism fanning herself in a country garden but having to wait for the interval to see any more. There’s also a wonderful slapstick muffin fight at the end of Act 2 which wouldn’t be out of place in a silent comedy. It’s different and it’s clever and it’s the mark of a vital director.
If there’s anything about the production which needs a boost it’s Lee Newby’s sets. While the intent of decluttering the stage to create space for the energy and expansiveness of the performances is clear, it does mean the set comes over as a little sparse, with a simple rear flat depicting each drawing room. There’s greater success with the colourful Manor House garden set in Act 2, which gives Newby a three-dimensional palette to work with.
The Importance of Being Earnest is a very funny play. There are many laugh-out-loud moments resulting from both the spoken and physical comedy, and Wilde’s playful picking apart of polite Victorian society stares daggers just as powerfully as ever. Fitch’s production gives an old favourite fresh life thanks to a youthful, enthusiastic and talented cast and a desire to stay faithful to Wilde’s work, but stretch it a bit too. You couldn’t wish for a better night out at the theatre right now.
Until May 27
Main image: James Backway and Matt Jessup