The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde
Classics for Pleasure
(2007)

The Beatles, Mozart and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers are all very well but anyone forced to spend the rest of their lives on a desert island would do well to consider this disc as one of their eight, if Kirsty Young ever invites them to make the choice. It would both add variety and provide intellectual stimulation to complement the musical selection.

The Importance of Being Earnest is surely one of the greatest plays that has ever been written and this disc, recorded at the Abbey Road studios in 1953, might well have the perfect audio cast. It is similar to that in Anthony Asquith's definitive film version which was released the year before; and which, remarkably, appears to be out of circulation at present.

Edith Evans is ridiculously good as Aunt Augusta, Lady Bracknell. Her voice often takes on a vibrato, for example when she discovers that Jack was found in "a haaandbag". This lady is society to the core and, at her best, terrifies, sounding like a frustrated owner admonishing a particularly mischievous puppy.

The orphaned Jack (or is that Ernest?) Worthing is played by John Gielgud, whose voice happily complements that of his partner in crime, Roland Culver. He plays Algernon Moncrieff who has great charm but threatens to be something of a bounder.

This pair hails from that part of society which is entirely at home in the Albany enjoying cucumber sandwiches for tea and holding pointless discussions about love.

For Jack, this comes in the form of Algy's cousin Gwendolen Fairfax, made to sound incredibly sexy by the husky-voiced Pamela Brown. Her only requirement in a husband is that he should be called Ernest and that is where much of the comedy lies.

By Act Two, we have decamped to Jack's country house, which is occupied by his 18 year-old ward Cecily Cardew, sweetly played by Celia Johnson, who sounds absolutely right despite the fact that she was 45 at the time.

She is tutored by Miss Prism, Jean Cadell doing a fine job as a batty old spinster in love with the local vicar Canon Chasuble (Aubrey Mather). This couple do well in their parts, particularly when they must compete with the memory of Margaret Rutherford and Miles Malleson in the 1952 film.

The comedy builds as both men tell white lies in order to win the hearts of the young ladies. In the case of Jack Worthing, this is necessary since has no history prior to having been discovered at Victoria Station in mysterious circumstances.

To add to the confusion, the domineering Lady Bracknell arrives and flatly refuses to allow her daughter to marry a man of unknown provenance. Wilde seems to have backed himself into a corner and then requires coincidence to ensure that a happy ending is enjoyed by all, but who cares? His real skill is in the writing with hilarious aphorisms falling over each other to entertain - and they do.

Quite often, it is useful to be able to listen to spoken-word discs while travelling but once listened to, they are likely to gather dust for years. However, like a favourite symphony or rock album, this hilarious play with its wonderful cast most of whom have beautiful, tuneful voices could and should be listened to again and again.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher