"The Importance of Being Earnest" brims with the wit and humour for which Oscar Wilde is famous and class, social standing and identity are key elements in this famous comedy with Simon Brett's 'framing device' of a group of aged amateurs staging a revival of their most successful production allowing some of Britain's most respected middle-aged actors to play parts usually reserved for those half their ages.
What we witness is a rehearsal for their forthcoming production taking place in the home of leading lady "Lavinia Spelman" (Siân Phillips) which also turns out to be the perfect setting for this interesting take on Wilde's comic classic. All cast members take the role of a member of the "Bunbury Company of Players" and portray either the actors rehearsing or the crew supporting them. Brett's 'backstage' material hints at shenanigans between the company members which could be really quite humorous but his material is left sadly underdeveloped. Brett's conceit is a little uneven and there are moments when it intrudes on the play proper to negative effect, although this is by no means a constant issue and it is ultimately unfortunate that the framing device isn't followed through to the very end of the production. Indeed in the second half it is very easy to forget the play-within-play concept and enjoy Wilde's play for what it is.
Lucy Bailey's direction is assured, elegant and witty and her unfussy work allows the cast to shine fittingly. Bailey keeps the pace driving along for the most part and, although there are one or two moments which feel a little slack, the momentum continues on like the proverbially oiled wheel and there are some lovely and well staged moments throughout. The humour and wit inherent within both Wilde and Brett's material is drawn out almost effortlessly and to great effect by Bailey and the excellent cast she directs.
William Dudley's set design is opulent and detailed creating a space of great value to the production adding to the wonderful lustre of the production as a whole and his costumes are equally excellent and perfectly attuned to the production both on and off the Bunbury stage.
The jaunty music and sound design of Tom Mills is equally appropriate and unobtrusive and the lighting design by Oliver Fenwick is subtle yet mood-appropriate and compliments the setting gloriously, especially in the latter half where the effect of colour and shadow is sublime.
The cast is uniformly superb, equally adept at portraying their Bunbury character and, where appropriate, their Wilde character. Nigel Anthony as "George", husband to "Lavinia", is underplayed to perfection and his dual Wilde roles of "Lane" and "Merriman" have some lovely, humorous moments. Likewise Rosalind Ayres whose "Wendy" plays the essential part of "Miss Prism" whose interactions with the "Rev. Canon Chasuble" of David Shaw-Parker (as "Paul") are engaging and charming. Her ultimate reveal at the climax is wonderfully timed and performed.
Carmen Du Sautoy as "Maria/Gwendolen Fairfax" and Christine Kavanaugh as "Ellen/Cecily Cardew" capture the spirit and energy of their roles and they shine appropriately, performing with abandon and to perfection, taking no prisoners with their delivery of sharp and witty lines especially in their face-off over the titular character(s). They also manage to capture the perfect balance between real acting and the over-acting attributed to amateur companies (often mistakenly) such as the Bunbury Company. It is this juxtaposition that is a little unsettling in Brett's concept but, regardless, they - and everyone else - perform it quite brilliantly.
Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis both sparkle in their parts and they are ebullient, spirited and youthful, demonstrating the prowess of true talent and they effervesce as "Dicky/Algernon Moncreiff" and "Tony/John Worthing" respectively. Theirs is clearly a job they love and enjoy doing making the audience's enjoyment all the more fulfilling.
Special mention must be made of Carole Dance's prop-lady, "Sasha", and her escapades involving cucumber sandwiches: a wonderful addition by Simon Brett captured brilliantly by an under-used actress.
But the production belongs, appropriately enough, to the glorious Siân Phillips whose theatrical magic still burns bright and who delivers a stellar performance epitomising the ideal of stage presence. Exuding class and sophistication she deftly switches between the Bunbury character of "Lavinia" and Wilde's indomitable "Lady Bracknell" commanding the stage with the slightest of movements, effortlessly conveying the wit of Wilde's work with deliberate effect and completely inhabiting the theatre with her complete performance. It is a joy to watch her in such an entertaining and well written role and she continues to prove what a great and talented actress she really is.
Much like Phillips, the whole production is redolent of class and style and is in stark contrast to a number of recent touring productions where such strong production values are not so evident. "The Importance of Being Earnest" is full of verve and energy and is a chance to see some great actors at the peak of their craft and, although not a perfect production, one could do worse than to experience such a wonderfully superb cast working with some of the strongest material ever written for the stage in one of the most beautiful productions seen for a while.