The Importance of Being Earnest
by Oscar Wilde
With additional material by Simon Brett
Directed by Lucy Bailey
Harold Pinter Theatre,
London Friday 11th July 2014, 7.30 pm
Nigel Havers as Algernon
Martin Jarvis as Jack
Christine Kavanagh as Cecily
Cherie Lunghi as Gwendolyn
Patrick Godfrey as Merriman & Lane
Sian Phillips as Lady Bracknell
Rosalind Ayres as Miss Prism
Niall Buggy as Canon Chasuble
When I saw the first adverts for this, I raced to the phone to book it. Lucy Bailey’s direction (see other reviews here of The Taming of the Shrew, The Winter’s Tale, King Lear, Fortune’s Fool, Titus Andronicus) was a guaranteed “must see” but I love the concept of the adverts. We are seeing “The Bunbury Company of Players” in their “much acclaimed award-winning production.” The award, the poster tells us, is the 1982 Nantwich and South Cheshire Live Performance Award. The press releases said: “The Bunbury Company of Players reside in Bunbury, South Cheshire in the North West of England and specialise in late19th century and early 20th century light comedy. Their productions of An Ideal Husband and Pygmalion are well-known, but their Importance of Being Earnest has always been especially acclaimed.”
The poster pastiches the 2002 movie poster too.
The Importance of Being Earnest is the most-performed play by amateur dramatic companies of the 20th century. If you know the world of AmDram, you know that the plum parts go to the long-established members, which means they, ahem, tend to play younger than their years. I’ve been there. We used to do Private Lives with one couple in their early twenties and the other in their late fifties (they had been doing it since they were in their twenties). You try directing people who have been doing a play successfully for thirty years (“But we have always done it this way. No one has ever complained before …)
Here we have Nigel Havers (63) and Martin Jarvis (73) in the lead roles. The publicity says
“The Bunbury Players are putting on the show, as they have done for decades. The players may be getting older, but they have grown into their roles.”
After all their award was 32 years ago. I love the play … last time I saw it was a vigorous and younger-than-usual outdoor production by Rain or Shine, (LINKED) and that review notes some of my own experiences with it.
The production has a gorgeous Arts & Craft era living room set with French window to a garden stage left. It’s not the set of The Importance of Being Earnest as played in a Nantwich theatre though, but the living room of George and Lavinia Spelman, who preserve an 1890s arts style in the house (albeit with a TV set concealed in a beautiful cabinet). They run the Bunbury Players and the “actual play” which we are to see is the dress rehearsal in their house. George Spelman (Patrick Godfrey) plays the two butlers, Merriman and Lane, in his first performance for The Bunbury Players following the death of their founder, Charlie. Lavinia (Sean Philips) has always played Lady Bracknell. Tony (Martin Jarvis) has always directed the play and plays Jack Worthing, while the rakish Dick (Nigel Havers) has always played Algernon. So everyone in the cast has two roles, first the Am Dram member of the Bunbury Company of players, and second the role which that person plays in the Importance.
The two programmes
This all becomes clear in the superb programme … the most fun programme I’ve seen … which has an “inner programme” inserted separately which is the programme for The Bunbury Company production, with fictional bios of all the Am Dram actors. This programme is very funny. I loved “Anthony Scotney” (the “director and dramaturg”, who plays Jack Worthing)’s bio, which mentions his great roles being “the gravitas of” John Proctor in The Crucible, and “his definitive” Widow Twanky in Aladdin. There are posed photos like “Ellen” (who plays Cecily) and her husband Fergus (who plays Canon Chasuble) sitting grimly. It’s captioned Ellen & Fergus sharing a joke. There are two sets of married couples in the cast, which would be right. We get a history of the company and obviously a back page of adverts, all placed by businesses belonging to cast members.
The framing piece has them getting ready for the rehearsal, and we also have the backstage members: Stage Manager & Props (continually trying to make cucumber sandwiches), Wardrobe. Assistant Wardrobe & Prompter, Music Sound & Lighting, and Assistant Stage Manager. The advert for “Volunteers” on the back of the fictional Bunbury Players programme calls for new members saying “there are plenty of opportunities to help out, particularly backstage.” Twas ever thus. No plum roles, but more dogsbodies required. The framing piece builds up tensions. Fergus (playing Canon Chasuble) is drunk. His wife Ellen, playing Cecily, fancies Dicky (playing Algernon). The prompter burst into tears when Dicky’s affairs at each production are mentioned. Maria (playing Gwendolyn) has outgrown her frock which has to be sewn up during her first scene.
L to R: Lady Bracknell, Cecily, Algernon, Jack, Gwendolyn
All glorious stuff … but. There’s always a “but”. We’ve done a “play going wrong” more than once in scripts ourselves, and it’s a long tradition from Pyramus & Thisbe in Midsummer Night’s Dream, to the Two Ronnies (“Sorry, it’s my first time in a play), Morecambe and Wise, The Real Inspector Hound, Noises Off … and therefore most if not all the visual and sound jokes are familiar. The ladder being swung round by a stagehand and just missing the heads of the entire cast, the misplaced sound effect, the missing props, Dicky as Algy starting out wearing red Nike trainers with his 1890s costume. Someone making a mobile phone call. Prompting someone (the prompter stays on throughout). Some of the business … holding empty trembling tea cups, not knowing whether the cucumber sandwiches were on or off … were in it when we used to do it in the 70s. A nice touch twice is “Dick as Algy” breaking the fourth wall and winking to the audience, and arguing with “Tony as Jack” whether this is permissible. I also like Tony’s insincere self-deprecating responses to praise of his direction.
Nigel Havers (Algy) and Martin Jarvis (Jack): They played these roles at The National Theatre 32 years ago
The concept was that older actors could carry off this play, and I suppose that means that we gradually lose the “frame play” of the Bunbury Players, and accept the play itself. To a large degree we do, because the extra business gets less and less as it progresses … though we still see some visual humour such as George spraying his roses when he’s not needed in a scene. It’s true that this cast can carry it off regardless of age … Nigel Havers still looks sprightly and boyish as Algy, Martin Jarvis is full of energy, Christine Kavanagh and Cherie Lungji have a lot of fun with the Cecily / Gwendolyn tea party. Sian Philips is on a winner because she plays the classic Lady Bracknell to perfection, which doesn’t necessitate an age shift for her, though having said that, the rare productions which have eschewed the Edith Evans style and placed Lady Bracknell in her forties (and why not? Gwendolyn can be twenty) work well. It’s great to see Lavinia practising “A handbag!” before the rehearsal starts. Martin Jarvis must feel at home in the setting after reading all those Just William stories. Amateur dramatics was a favourite Richmal Crompton theme.
There is a problem throughout while watching, in not knowing the line between being the actor playing a ham actor doing the role and then the actor just doing the role. Early on we get hints that we’re in the former mode. But while early on we see that Fergus, the man playing Canon Chasuble is royally pissed, as the play progresses we lose that double layer of “drunken Fergus playing Canon Chasuble” and he’s just Canon Chasuble. In other words I didn’t know when Nigel Havers was Dicky, when he was Dicky acting out Algernon, or when he was just Nigel Havers playing Algernon. I single Nigel out, but that’s true of every role. Are they acting, or acting as an amateur drama actor might? After all, a lot of Am Dram people are very good, especially in the “classic repertoire” of Wilde, Rattigan and Coward. Later in the play, I was quite happy to believe this was simply Jack and Algernon and Gwendolyn and Cecily and I was cheerfully “age-blind.” You expect that with such fine actors with such fine voices, and a point was proved about age. I think I’d have accepted them doing it straight without the frame, and just an odd wink or two about “being 29.”
Algy & Cecily
One set, the Spelman’s house, serving as London, the garden and the country house worked within the concept, and it gradually got darker through the four scenes. It restricted the lighting plot though, even if we got a thunder storm outside. But the issue nagged away right through, and in some way, the frame device put a brake on the natural sparkle and pace of the play. You kept thinking it was going to be extremely funny indeed, but in the end it was just “funny.” Tellingly, the loudest laughs from those around us came at beautifully-delivered lines written by Oscar Wilde, not from added business. This is after all a play that never fails because the lines and situations carry themselves without an extraneous layer of added comedy. We couldn’t define the effect, but the double layer made the natural flow stammer. In the early scenes between Algy and Jack in London, the play builds up a nervous tension between Jack and Algy, topped by the arrival of Lady Bracknell. But during this first vital scene, the frame of Am Dram going wrong was at its strongest (with Gwendolyn having her dress sewn up, and the cucumber sandwiches being wrong). Therefore the original play lost its natural momentum. The pace was thrown at the vital part: take off.
To our surprise, the theatre was not full, and the applause was warm and appreciative, but there was no hint of a standing ovation or of repeated bows. We had got front row dress circle, being among the first to book, and four of the eight seats in the centre were vacant. You could walk up and get a great seat last night … and the Harold Pinter Theatre, which used to be The Comedy Theatre, is my favourite of the older West End venues. It’s early in the run. I Googled for reviews elsewhere, and apparently 27th June to 17th July is “previews” meaning they might well tweak before it starts “properly.” As an amateur reviewer paying full price for tickets as advertised, I find the distinction specious. I would say it needs a little tweaking to get it sparkling properly. I’m delighted to have seen it. The concept is brilliant, the actors fine, the play is always worth seeing, but it’s not a five star production somehow. At least, not yet. It’s touring after the London run. I suspect they always had an eye on the tour as much as the West End. I’d be interested in catching it on tour, hoping that it might have come together.
Jack (Martin Jarvis), Algy (Nigel Havers)
A Daily Mail article (22 August 2014) indicates that the production was an idea by Havers and Jarvis, and that Martin Jarvis thought of the framing device of The Bunbury Players. Nigel Havers also says his ‘breaking the fourth wall’ wink to the audience was something he did at The National in the Peter Hall production and was told off in the interval by Peter Hall who was watching. He suggested Simon Brett write it in.
The August piece, five or six weeks after we saw it, makes me think that the accomplished and experienced cast will have found new comedy and perhaps dumped stuff that wasn’t getting reactions over the run, I’m even more interested in catching it on tour.
Not only a double programme, with the inner one being a very good read, but a standard £4. Contrast that to The Aldwych charging £6 for Bring Up The Bodies last week.
Both The Guardian and The Sunday Times give it two stars. That’s tough, I think. It was better than that. Tim Walker in the Telegraph put all the blame on Brett’s adaptation:
The problem is that Mr Brett won’t go away. The hack writer keeps meddling with the dialogue even after the prologue in what appears to be a half-hearted attempt at a Noises Off-style subplot. Needless to say, it is Wilde’s lines rather than the interloper’s that get all the laughs.
I don’t really see that there has to be an explanation as to why the actors playing the roles are almost all too old for them. If colour-blind casting is now the norm – then I don’t see why age-blind casting is so hard to accept. The ensemble is, in any case, far too good to be convincing as world-weary old amateur thespians. I wonder if it isn’t too late to put a red pen through Mr Brett’s revisions? (TIM WALKER)
Maybe four is too generous (which the concept should have achieved). Three? At the start of the run anyway. I think it will improve.