The Importance of Being Earnest
By Oscar Wilde
Directed by Adrian Noble
Vaudeville Theatre, London
Wednesday 2nd September 2015-08-31
David Suchet as Lady Bracknell.
Emily Barber as Gwendolen Fairfax.
Michael Benz as Jack Worthing.
Philip Cumbus as Algernon Moncrieff.
Imogen Doel as Cecily Cardew.
Michele Dotrice as Miss Prism.
Richard O’Callaghan as Canon Chasuble.
David Killick as Lane.
Brendan Hooper as Merriman.
We had to see this right after Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, not because we were celebrity spotting, but because in my pseudonymous novel Foreign Affairs two central scenes revolve around a production of The Importance of Being Earnest and a reading of Hamlet. That was a deliberate juxtaposition for a book with a storyline involving teaching English. But we really did want to see David Suchet as Lady Bracknell.
David Suchet as Lady Bracknell (Act III)
Reviews say David Suchet is the first West End male Lady Bracknell. It’s not the first male one though, as the programme points out. One of the most enjoyable productions I’ve seen was Rain or Shine’s outdoor production in 2010, and that (necessarily for a touring company playing amidst rain or mosquitos) had a young Lady Bracknell … imagined as mid to late forties at most , the actress being a lot younger still. We are so conditioned by Dame Edith Evans that a younger flightier Lady Bracknell was a surprise. A bigger surprise was that younger works perfectly with the text. She says she married young. Gwendolyn is in her twenties, so Lady Bracknell needn’t be an elderly dowager, and seeing how well the lines work younger, I wonder if she was ever intended to be. People get snotty about changing times and manners quite easily enough over a 20 year period.
As I mention in the other reviews, it’s one we had to do as an elaborate costumed rehearsed reading for ELT students for several years. At one point, when Karen had at last switched from playing Cecily to playing Gwendolen (as she had wanted to for ages), we discussed our inability to find a strong enough Lady Bracknell among our young cast, and seriously contemplated doing it in drag. We had just seen Charlie’s Aunt. In the end, we decided it would be so pantomime that it would distract too much from the rest of the play. More later …
The Vaudeville has a small tight stage (as well as small tight very low seats), but they did the play as intended in three acts and two intervals with three complete scene changes. It is tempting to combine Act 2 and Act 3 (the garden and the house) for economy. They didn’t. At first Algie and Jack seemed very young … an after effect of the 2014 touring production with older actors, but they grew on me. Throughout the direction on physical business was excellent, with many added touches.
Of course David Suchet got entrance applause as he sailed on as Lady Bracknell, and he looked magnificent in crimson dress and hat. You wait to see how ‘A handbag!’ will emerge. Penelope Keith at Bath eschewed the inevitable Dame Edith Evans hoot by throwing it away, softly and rather quizzically. David Suchet went for laughing as he said it. I know the Jack Worthing interview by heart, having used it in full in an ELT book. Very well conducted by both. There is an inevitable push in the over the top direction in casting a man in drag, but nevertheless it was good. We both liked Gwendolene’s physical business in Act One though we also felt that she sounded as if she was “putting on” Advanced RP rather than being totally comfortable with it.
Act two had an excellent garden set. Cecily (Imogen Doel) was superb, an outstanding Cecily, and we have seen many good ones. She really went for the lisping young girl with childish expressions and it worked a treat. At the start, Michelle Dotrice’s Miss Prism veered too close to Lady Bracknell. It was almost like having a second Lady Bracknell there, and she was a decisive Miss Prism rather than a nervous one. Both work. She had a fine Canon Chasuble to work with. The Gwendolene / Cecily scene is always the highlight of the play for me,and here the sugar and cake business was taken faster than I’m accustomed to, but other physical business compensated. The last scene where Algie (Philip Cumbus) and Jack (Michael Benz) compete over the muffins is, I feel, the best I’ve seen it done, with excellent business.
Cecily (Imogen Doel) and Gwendolene (Emily Barber) Act III
Cecily (Imogen Doel) and Algernon (Philip Cumbus) Act III
The house interior was another complete set with library. Lady Bracknell was in pale salmon for her entry, and Suchet’s facial expressions were hilarious. As ever, we were surprised that so many of the wonderful Oscar Wilde lines came fresh to so many of the audience. It made me wish I was seeing it for the first time too!
Inevitably, the drag pulls the play broader. In some ways, the Lady Bracknell-free Act Two benefitted from the absence. I’ve never failed to enjoy it, and after last year’s concept “The Bunbury Players amateur group doing the Importance” and a couple where Algernon displayed piano playing prowess at extraordinary length, as well as pastiches within other plays, it was good to have a straightforward 1890s interpretation, well, as straightforward as it can be with a male Lady Bracknell.
Lady Bracknell, Miss Prism (Michelle Dotrice), Jack Worthing (Michael Benz) Act III
L to R: Cecily, Algernon, Jack, Lady Bracknell, Gwendolene, Canon at rear
The Vaudeville Theatre is small, quite intimate, but the seats were so impossibly low that I’m left with knee pain I got rid of two years ago. Dreadful toilets. I really don’t like these old West End venues.