The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde
Curve and Birmingham Repertory Theatre
Curve Theatre, Leicester

The cast of The Importance of Being Earnest Credit: Tom Wren
Martha Mackintosh (Gwendolen Fairfax) and Fela Lufadeju (John Worthing) Credit: Tom Wren
Cathy Tyson (Lady Bracknell) Credit: Tom Wren

Arguably Oscar Wilde’s most well-known play, The Importance of Being Earnest opens at Curve’s Studio theatre, the latest production in the Made at Curve autumn season (and made in conjunction with Birmingham Rep, having premièred there earlier in September).

According to the programme notes, director Nikolai Foster is fulfilling a long-standing wish by bringing Wilde’s barb-rich play to the stage. But with wall-to-wall mirrors, metallic balloons and stunning costumes, one might be worried Foster and designer Isla Shaw are in danger of living up to one of Lady Bracknell’s bon mots: “in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”

Cutting a stylish edge, this production certainly adds to the idea of casting new prisms of light onto a classic, however, the nightclub music at scene and act changes jars. Shaw’s set is stripped-back but effective, with cascading lines of faux flowers for the garden scenes, two pyramids of fairy-lit books in the morning room and sumptuous chaise longues in the drawing room.

What really shines through, though, and what Foster and his skilled cast fully embrace, is Wilde’s dialogue, still nowhere near its sell-by date after 120 years.

Louche men-about-town Algernon Moncrieff (Edward Franklin) and John Worthing (Fela Lufadeju) amuse as they both attempt to ‘catch’ their respective squeezes by passing themselves off as the enigmatic Ernest.

Set in its original late Victorian period, status is everything and a woman’s position at that time precarious, depending as it did on how their menfolk managed their fortunes. Martha Mackintosh (Gwendolen Fairfax) and Sharan Phull (Cecily Cardew) delight as they manoeuvre their smitten suitors to their advantage, and their pithy exchange when they believe they are both engaged to the same man is delicious.

Cathy Tyson is an imperious yet understated Lady Bracknell, not overdoing “a handbag” but hitting all her targets with her wealth of witty weaponry. Down-playing a role that has become something of a caricature is effective as she commands the stage.

Angela Clerkin and Dominic Gately add to the laughs as Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble, and Dominic Bennett doubles as butlers Lane and a somewhat camp Merriman.

The Importance of Being Earnest caused a stir in its day, skewering the hypocrisy and status quo of late Victorian society. It was Wilde’s last play, successfully premièring in 1895, however, news of his own double life and a subsequent spell in prison signalled the end of his writing career and he died in exile in 1900. All the more poignant then, in this witty tale of manners, social mores and things not being quite what they seem.

This production’s use of mirrors proports to reflect society today, the audience looking back on itself during the performance as well as seeing characters from many angles. Today’s society is, of course, very different to that of Wilde’s yet where this play really hits the mark is the writer's commentary on relationships. Some things never change, it seems, judging by the knowing laughs in the audience.

Reviewer: Sally Jack

Are you sure?