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The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde
Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Curve
Birmingham REP

Fela Lufadeju as Jack Worthing and Edward Franklin as Algernon Moncrieff Credit: Tom Wren
Cathy Tyson as Lady Bracknell Credit: Tom Wren
Martha Mackintosh as Gwendolen Fairfax, Sharan Phull as Cecily Cardew and Darren Bennett as Merriman Credit: Tom Wren

Oscar Wilde’s satirical comedy of English manners is a play which has been analysed to such an extent that you wonder how anyone could think of a new way to do it.

On the last two occasions that I reviewed The Importance of Being Earnest, I remarked how hard the cast had to work to extract something different or innovative from Wilde’s script.

Now Nikolai Foster is having a go, giving this Birmingham REP and Leicester Curve co-production what he describes as a “stylish, fresh and contemporary spin”.

From the outset, you realise that this is no traditional take on Wilde. Foster and designer Isla Shaw have come up with a set covered completely in mirrors, the aim being for the audience to be reflected within the mirror and be drawn deeper into the action.

But there is so much happening on stage, particularly in the opening scene, that everything looks too busy; characters, furniture and props are reflected many times over and it is difficult to make out what is going on.

There is a quick burst of modern music while actors parade in their costumes which are unusual to say the least. John Worthing wears a red and black checked shirt, a black jacket with red piping and red socks while Algernon Moncrieff wears a grey jacket trimmed with blue and similar coloured socks. Gwendolen Fairfax’s long dress is cut away at the front up to her knee, perhaps in a nod to her rebellious nature.

It all seems a hotchpotch which is a shame really because it can detract from the acting, which is enjoyable in itself.

Fela Lufadeju (Worthing) and Edward Franklin (Moncrieff) tackle Wilde’s words with gusto, getting a good number of laughs as they try to get the better of each other.

Martha Mackintosh (Gwendolen) and Sharan Phull (Cecily Cardew) have a delightful sparring match when they mistakenly realise that they are both engaged to Worthing.

Cathy Tyson plays Lady Bracknell with an assuredness that comes with the experience of a long and varied career. She portrays the overbearing mother as a formidable pillar of society who recognises all too clearly a situation that can be turned to her advantage. Yet Tyson does not take over the play, allowing the rest of the cast to shine when they appear alongside her.

Darren Bennett, who took tips on how to be a butler from a professional, gives an entertaining performance as both Lane and Merriman; and there are pleasant performances from Angela Clerkin as Miss Prism and Dominic Gately as Dr Chasuble.

Some plays show their age when they are revived, especially those written 120 years ago. But this production of The Importance of Being Earnest shows that Wilde’s biting wit and observational intellect can still make an impact in the 21st century.

It’s such a pity that Foster decided it needed a contemporary touch. Some people may disagree with me but I feel it doesn’t work. The acting is of a sufficiently high standard on its own to pay tribute to Wilde.

Reviewer: Steve Orme