Review: The Importance of Being Earnest at Liverpool Playhouse ***1/2
The Importance of Being Earnest remains perhaps Oscar Wilde’s greatest play.
Of course, we don’t know what he might have trumped it with.
Because just two months after the successful Valentine’s Day 1895 premiere of this ultimate “trivial comedy for serious people”, its author was arrested and convicted of gross indecency – triggering a series of events which within a handful of years would lead to Wilde’s lonely death (just like Jack Worthing’s mythical brother Ernest) in a Paris hotel.
Incidentally, Wilde’s original Lady Bracknell was Rose Leclerq, born – appropriately - in Wilde Street here in Liverpool. Critics noted how she brought out the cynicism of the character.
In the intervening century-and-a-quarter, Earnest has remained a theatrical favourite, casts and audiences relishing its sugared but savage pops at social conventions and its Wildean witticisms, and it’s been presented in a myriad of ways.
Can there be anything fresh left to bring to it? Well yes, and this vigorous and enjoyable ETT production in conjunction with Leeds Playhouse and Rose Theatre, starring an all-Black cast and directed by the award-winning Denzel Westley-Sanderson, does just that.
Anyone who imagines the Black British experience started with Windrush ignores a history that actually goes back centuries. In the Victorian era, there were people of African, Caribbean and Asian descent within different areas of society, albeit in comparatively small numbers.
Above: Phoebe Campbell as Cecily. Top: The Importance of Being Earnest cast. Photos by Mark Senior.
The production is accompanied in the foyer by a fascinating exhibition of photographs of real Black Victorians, presented by Autograph and including the famous Sara Forbes Bonetta (goddaughter of Queen Victoria).
Among others is an unnamed woman photographed at Arthur Stanhope Medrington’s ‘Grand Electric’ studio which once occupied 29 Bold Street. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to put a name to the face?
Perhaps behind the reserved expression she was as feisty as Wilde’s two diary-wielding young ladies, Adele James’ gung-ho Gwendolen and Phoebe Campbell’s cheerily wayward Cecily, whose passion for the name Ernest complicates Wilde’s gleefully constructed farce of manners, hypocrisy and hyperbole.
They’re well matched by Justice Ritchie as Jack and Abiola Owokoniran’s mischievous Algy who spar energetically over cucumber martinis (not the sandwiches my A level English teacher insisted signified “sexual desire”) and the useful art of Bunburying.
It’s a larky and lively production – Cecily and Algy’s meeting in the country absolutely fizzes for example, while Valentine Hanson glides and staggers around in the background stealing scenes as the put-upon butlers in town (Lane) and country (Merriman). Occasionally the physical comedy errs towards the pantoesque.
Daniel Jacob as Lady Bracknell. Photo by Mark Senior
Meanwhile Wilde’s delicious dialogue is there to be savoured, not laboured. There’s certainly no chance of the latter as the action rattles along, although the sometimes breakneck speed does mean you don’t have time to enjoy the individual barbs and bon mots.
Daniel Jacob is the latest in a long line of men to have played Lady Bracknell including Geoffrey Rush, David Suchet, Stephen Fry and Gyles Brandreth, although he’s unique among them in doing it as his drag alter ego.
Jacob is certainly physically imposing - he moves around the stage like a stately galleon in full sail, firing warning shots across the young people’s bows. But his delivery doesn’t always make the most of the character’s entitled imperiousness and the famous handbag line (the Wildean equivalent of Hamlet's 'to be and not to be') is strangely downplayed.
Another of the production’s decisions sees Dr Chasuble recast as a woman, creating a same-sex attraction plotline with Miss Prism. While the swap certainly doesn’t jar, it also doesn’t add anything particular to proceedings either.
The action unfolds against designer Lily Arnold’s malleable set with its clever use of scrim mirroring the double life and the hiding and revealing of characters within Wilde’s pleasurably preposterous plot.