The Importance of Being Earnest
Red Rose Chain
The Avenue Theatre
Thursday 23rd March
Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is for me a special play. A young student teacher, (on whom I had a teenage schoolboy crush), had her small class read this play, by which I mean characters were selected and the play read aloud. It was my first experience of playing a part and obviously no production can ever come close to those readings in double English on a Wednesday afternoon with Miss…. what was her name?
Forgive the indulgent introduction, I did not approach this Red Rose Chain production with an open mind. To begin with I was thrown by the set and the 1960s music being played as we entered the theatre – although the choice of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” just as the lights went down was noted and approved of!
My confusion was compounded when the unfamiliar characters of Rosemary, Terry, Frank, Robin and Eloise populated the stage – who were these interlopers? And oh dear, how the butler, Merriman, has let himself go! This clever device, transporting the surviving butler Merriman to 1963 to begin proceedings, contrived by director Jo Carrick, put Wilde’s convoluted farce into a modern context.
By slight change of jacket Laurence Pears playing Terry became Algernon and we were transported back in time to his flat in West London where the other Laurence, Laurence Russell transformed from Frank to John or was it Earnest? Yes, you do need to pay attention to follow this story.
Having joined us as the mini skirted, placard wielding, modern miss of the 1960s Joanna Sawyer’s Robin placed her Cecily in context as her character giggled and skipped about in a most annoying fashion. The far more serious Eloise, played by Leonie Spilsbury, was not a lot different to Gwendolen in whom could be seen a passion that society dictated, both then and now, should remain suppressed.
The domineering character of Lady Bracknell is one of those parts that can so easily go wrong if played by the wrong person. Indeed, there is one line, no, one word, in the play that defines her part and Jo Carrick delivered her ‘handbag’ perfectly. I felt there was a collective sigh of relief amongst the audience following that line for it was at that point that we knew for certain that this group of players had got it right.
By drifting back to the 1960s occasionally, we see Merriman (Anthony Carrick) struggling with dementia amongst characters he no longer knows. These flashbacks (or are they flash forwards?) are not in the least intrusive and add a new dimension to the work.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable production of what many say is Wilde’s best work. The acting is superb with lines delivered at speed and with faultless comic timing. Presented in the round in the intimacy of The Avenue Theatre, the play runs until 9th April. Book tickets now, go and see it, you will not be disappointed.
But how did it measure up to those double English classes all those years ago, I hear you ask? If you will excuse the pun, that was in a different class, a different time, but I still have the memories… for now.