The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde
Derby Playhouse
(2007)

When some members of an audience recite the last line of a play alongside the actor on stage, you realise how well-known that play has become. And you know the cast are having to work extremely hard to extract something different or innovative from it.

The Importance of Being Earnest must be one of the best-loved and most-performed plays in the UK today. So any company that revives it almost invariably has to put up with some comments of "not that again!"

Cynics who criticised Derby Playhouse's decision to choose Earnest as the first play in its Sense of Self season looked on it as a sure-fire crowd puller from a theatre that last year had crippling financial problems. That may be so but it doesn't guarantee success.

The theatre seems to have taken to heart a line from the play when Lady Bracknell gives her verdict on Algernon: "He has nothing but he looks everything." This production of Earnest seems a low-budget affair - yet most of the tell-tale signs are disguised sufficiently so that it exudes an aura of class and elegance.

Dan Potra's design is fairly sparse yet for the most part it achieves its purpose. Even the plastic sheeting actually looks like expensive drapes when you're not too close.

But when the doors to Algernon's flat open in the first act, it's obvious they've had a bad paint job. And the change of set between acts one and two takes an interminable amount of time.

The Playhouse has given Katie McAleese her first directorial role at the theatre - she was assistant director for Into The Woods and Animal Farm last year - and she's done a commendable job.

All the Wilde humour, wit and pathos are brought out, there's a definite feel of freshness about the production and there's plenty of pace, particularly in the first act which races along, leaving you almost breathless.

The choice of actors is pretty good. Nick Caldecott could have been born to play Algernon. A suave, smooth, impish character, he has enough of a rebellious streak in him to make him dangerously attractive to women. You almost expect him to come out with phrases such as "hello" and "ding dong" in the style of Leslie Phillips.

And when he falls for Cecily you're in no way convinced that he will sacrifice his wild bachelor days.

Robert Hastie as Jack is nearly a total opposite. His voice and mannerisms remind me of Hugh Laurie in some of his earlier work. Hastie's Jack is sufficiently stuffy and proper - even though he's not being completely honest with everyone around him.

Christina Greatrex takes probably the most difficult part of all, that of the domineering Lady Bracknell. She's portrayed not as a dodderer who's too old to empathise with the younger generation but as a woman full of her own importance who knows best.

Greatrex puts a different slant on the totally familiar "A handbag?" but while she seems to be celebrating the success of that line, she shortly afterwards drops her plummy accent. Later there are times when she appears to be trying just that little bit too hard to be different.

The supporting cast give more than adequate performances, with Caitlin Mottram and Ellie Beaven in particular working together well as Gwendoline and Cecily.

Yes, it's another production of Earnest but there's enough in it to entertain theatregoers no matter how many or how few times they've seen it before.

"The Importance of Being Earnest" continues until February 24th

Steve Orme