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The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde
Theatre Royal, York
(2005)

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It's a fair bet that three or four hundred years from now theatre-goers will still be enjoying The Importance of Being Earnest, even if they have to pick their way through radioactive rubble to reach the nearest theatre. Wilde's indestructible "trivial play for serious people", the sole survivor of the drawing-room comedies that clogged the late Victorian stage, seems as sure of immortality as Twelfth Night.

The Theatre Royal's handsome new production marks the directorial debut of notorious panto villain David Leonard, and, after eighteen years of coping with everything Berwick Kaler can throw at him, Mr Leonard may wellhave found the task a piece of cake (or slice of bread and butter). This is a near-perfect production of a near-perfect play, and even provides more Wilde for your money than usual - how often do we get to meet the solicitor Mr Grisby, who has the unenviable task of carting the spendthrift Algernon off to prison? Never, in my experience, and although Leonard's decision to include this episode makes for a rather long evening, the pace is never allowed to flag.

Every member of the excellent cast rises to the occasion, quite literally so in the case of the butler Lane (Michael Roberts), whp makes a novel yet dignified entrance through a trapdoor. Algernon Moncrieff, cash-strapped man about town and muffin addict, is played with oodles of insouciant charm by Sward Bennett. His friend Jack Worthing, abandoned as a baby in English lterature's most famous piece of luggage, can easily come across as rather a colourless foil for other people's witticisms, but in the primly bespectacled form of Christopher Naylor he manages to hold his own against the flying epigrams of Algy and Lady Bracknell.

Dame Edith Evans' performance in the 1950s film version has cast a long shadow over the role of Lady Bracknell. It has taken many years for directors to realise that a woman who managed to marry into the aristocracy despite having "no fortune of any kind" must have had other, more tangible, attractions. Kate Brown plays her as a glamorous middle-aged matriarch and delivers every barbed line with deadly accuracy.

Lucy Chalkley makes an equally strong impression as her daughter Gwendolen, a girl so obvioulsy destined to become like her mother that we can't help having grave doubts about Jack's future happiness...

The smaller roles are equally well cast. Michael Roberts turns in three nice little cameos as Lane, Mr Grisby and the gardener Moulton (don't blink or you'll miss the latter). Christine Cox is a fluttery Miss Prism, Isabella Calthorpe an engaging Cecily Cardew and Iain Rogerson an avuncular Rev Chasuble. Stephen Mackenna, in the small but scene-steakling role of Jack's butler Merriman, makes the most of his every moment on stage.

Finally, a word of praise fr Emma Donovan's designs. Her three simple but wonderfully evocative sets, beautifully lit by Richard G Jones, make this fine production a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.

At the Theatre Royal, York, until 17th September

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson