The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde
The Original Theatre Company
York Theatre Royal

Gwen Taylor (Lady Bracknell) and Louise Coulthard (Cecily) Credit: The Other Richard
Thomas Howes (Algernon) and Peter Sandys-Clarke (Jack) Credit: The Other Richard
The whole cast Credit: The Other Richard

First staged on Valentine’s Day in 1895, only two months before his spectacular fall from grace, The Importance of Being Earnest remains the pinnacle of Oscar Wilde’s extraordinary career. His other comedies may be regularly performed, but none of them can rival the sparkling wit and exquisite construction of Earnest.

Over the last hundred years, Earnest has become such an ingrained part of British cultural life that one never has to wait too long for another production to come by—in July, for example, there will be a new staging at the Vaudeville Theatre. It is a testament to the play’s enduring qualities that audiences continue to flock to it.

Wilde sets his play in a marvellous topsy-turvy world—a sort of Victorian Illyria—where trivial matters are treated with the upmost seriousness and important issues are virtually discarded. However, despite the warmth and buoyancy of the piece, one can still sense Wilde’s delight in skewering the British upper classes.

Both Jack (Peter Sandys-Clarke) and Algernon (Thomas Howes)—the play’s idle, rich protagonists—have concocted alter egos in order to escape their social obligations. Whilst posing as “Ernest” in London, Jack falls in love with Archie’s cousin, Gwendolen (Hannah Louise Howell).

However, Jack’s marriage proposal is scuppered by Gwendolen’s mother, the fearsome Lady Bracknell (Gwen Taylor), who is horrified to learn that Jack was abandoned as a baby at Victoria Station—in a handbag!

When Jack returns to his country estate, with the intention of killing off his alter ego, he is swiftly followed by Algernon, who—to further complicate matters—poses as Jack’s imaginary brother Ernest in order to meet his 18-year-old ward, Cecily (Louise Coulthard).

So, does director Alastair Whatley bring anything new to this much-performed classic? Not really, but that’s not even remotely a problem. I have no doubt that Earnest could withstand a more radical interpretation as the play still has much to say about class and identity, but Whatley’s traditional take on the material allows Wilde’s superlative dialogue to shine.

The play is beautifully performed by its seasoned cast. Lady Bracknell is one of theatre’s most enduring comic creations, and Gwen Taylor inhabits the part with great assurance and skill. Although she is slightly warmer than other incarnations I’ve seen, she is capable of going sub-zero when necessary.

As Gwendolen, Hannah Louise Howell achieves the right level of archness and clearly relishes the opportunity to deliver some of the play’s most quoted dialogue (“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train”). Also impressive—and possibly stealing the show—is Louis Coulthard, who skilfully captures Cecily’s youthful precocity.

Susan Penhaligon is probably the finest Miss Prism I’ve ever seen, and her flirtation with Rev Canon Chasuble (a nice, understated performance from Geoff Aymer) is touching in its fumbling awkwardness.

It may seem perverse to mention Jack and Algernon last, as they are supposed to be the central protagonists—it’s just that the more often I see The Importance of Being Earnest, the more I feel that the play belongs to its female characters. Regardless of this, both Peter Sandys-Clarke and Thomas Howes give impressive performances. Sandys-Clarke is suitably dignified as Jack, providing a much-needed counterweight to Howes’s ebullient turn as Algernon.

The Importance of Being Earnest is a near-perfect comedy, and Alastair Whatley’s production is an absolute delight from start to finish.

Reviewer: James Ballands