The Importance of Being Earnest

Not everything works in this risky all-male revision, but ultimately the source material proves it to be still Wilde at heart

Oscar Wilde’s 1895 masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, is usually a familiar if not comfortable night out at the theatre, a question of lying back and letting the verbal zingers fly. As an Irishman Wilde knew very well English society’s love of seeing itself gently skewered. Bruiser Theatre’s and the MAC's new co-production, which opened this week with an all male cast, is an attempt to give some PC steel to the velvet. This did not please everyone. In fact, The Stage carried a complaint about a production trailer from a member of the local gay theatre community.

Funnily enough, it isn't the male actors but the staging that alters the original, not always for the better. Initially, this seems to be Wilde seen through a prism, as it were, of Monty Python. After a bit of Wagner and a few minutes of Joseph Derrington as Algernon Moncrieff lounging on a sofa in louche manner, we get an undramatic pause. And then comes the music. The entire cast dressed as darling Oscar tarantaras its way through a Matthew Reeve-composed opening number that's nine parts Eric Idle to one part Gilbert and Sullivan.

This is no doubt intended to illustrate the idea that all the characters are versions of Wilde but provides a rather uncertain start, with the opening exchanges between Jack and Algernon falling flat. An actor friend notes in the interval that he counted off the verbal sallies that washed over those in attendance, sans the intended reaction.

Things improve considerably with the arrival of Ross Anderson-Doherty as Lady Bracknell. At last the authentic Wildean cadences begin to take hold, leading to an immediately more receptive audience response. After all, who could not fail to laugh at still resonant lines such as 'The whole theory of education is radically unsound. Fortunately, in England at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever'?

Ross Anderson Doherty as Lady Bracknell), Joseph O'Malley as Jack and Samuel Townsend Gwendolyn

Ross Anderson Doherty as Lady Bracknell, Joseph O'Malley as Jack and Samuel Townsend as Gwendolyn

Lady Bracknell may be as close to a pantomime dame as mainstream theatre gets, though some of the pantomimic musical underscoring that greets her entrance is perhaps overdone. Nevertheless, Anderson-Doherty understands the point of comedy of foiled expectation.

Arguably the play works best when it lets Wilde do the work. The second half is less concerned with theatrical or musical gimmickry, and does manage one erotically charged scene which justifies the all-male casting when Cecily Cardew (excellent Chris Robinson) literally disrobes to reveal the trouser clad young man beneath. She, or rather he, and Algernon embrace, presumably referencing Wilde himself and Lord Alfred Douglas, and the obligatory Wildean carnation is exchanged. A tender moment, but possibly out of another drama; Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray in the much loved 1952 film version this is not.

Also, when there is so much homoerotic subtext and playfulness about identity, with Cecily possibly slang for a male prostitute and the gift of the silver cigarette case also from this at the period excluded demi-monde, do we need the scene? As Cecily has it when the women are pretending to ignore the men who have irked them: 'In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.'

Richard Croxford as Miss Prism

Richard Croxford as Miss Prism

There is also another outstanding performance from Richard Croxford as Miss Prism, who appears to have wandered in from one of Alan Bennett’s monologues and is none the worse for that. His account of Miss Prism’s unlikely but crucial (and honest) romance with Canon Chasuble is winning. This makes it a clean sweep for the more mature ladies, Anderson-Doherty’s five o’clock shadow notwithstanding.

It seems odd that director Lisa May has declared this production to be a 'love letter to same sex marriage' when marriage is the institution here most open to mockery. 'Divorces are made in heaven', declares Jack, and if there is any nod towards tragedy in the piece, it is the sense that all marriages will inevitably end up loveless. And with rampant Bunburying on the part of husbands – and wives – we see the importance of not always being earnest. Yet Wilde needs no special pleading, and if Bruiser and the MAC's production is only partially successful, its tinkering with the form can not hide the play’s essential robustness.

The Importance of Being Earnest is at the MAC, Belfast until April 15. For more details of show times and ticket booking visit www.themaclive.com or call 028 9023 5053.