The Importance of Being Earnest

Slapstick, Stevie Wonder and men playing women. The Lyric Theatre inject new life into Oscar Wilde's comic masterpiece

There are certain dramatic lines that carry a weight of expectation with them. Shakespeare’s writing in particular seems studded with them, over familiar sentences ready to trip up the unwitting actor: 'To be or not to be', 'Once more unto the breach', 'When shall we three meet again?'.

It is almost impossible to invest these lines with anything but the dull echo of much parodied forebears. The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde’s last dramatic work and ordinarily considered the wittiest play in the English language, has one such line.

Dame Edith Evans gave the line 'A handbag?' such withering hauteur, in a voice like an expensively educated donkey, that she sealed its fate forever – it became unsayable. It is to the credit of the Lyric’s production of the play, and Paddy Scully’s portrayal of Lady Bracknell, that it is not an issue.

Scully buries the line, tossing it away in a hoarse whisper and allowing a phalanx of lesser-known epigrams to shine. This is just one of a series of little innovations that raises this excellent production above all expectations.

My heart sank in the opening minutes of the play as John Paul Young’s 'Love is in the Air' was played. I had visions of a Baz Luhrmann style 're-imagining'. Happily, this moved into an incongruously jazzy, if sloppily played, piano version introducing Algernon, (Aaron McCusker) sliding into the room and demanding the first of a never-ending supply of cucumber sandwiches from his deadpan butler, Lane (a brilliant double performance from Niall Cusack as the entire Victorian service industry).

The Importance of Being Earnest

 

Algernon is visited by his friend, Ernest, (Patrick Moy) who has a secret double life: in town he is the rakish Ernest but in the country he is the respectable Uncle Jack to a rich and beautiful ward, Cecily, information which pricks Algernon’s interest.

This is the first time I’ve ever seen Wilde’s play as a bawdy knock-about farce. The physicality of the male leads – there is an actual fist fight on stage at one point – makes this the bounciest and most Tiggerish production of the play I’ve seen.

This coupled with the other subversive elements – the anachronistic pop songs and the cross-dressing (both the mature female roles are played by men) – could, in less assured hands, have swamped the glittering text. And that is, after all, why we are all here.

However, Graham McLaren’s direction is assured throughout and the words are always clearly and emphatically expressed. Algernon’s always indignant responses through a mouthful of bread and cucumber were, in particular, a miracle of clarity.

Special mention must go to Melody Grove’s panting portrayal of Gwendolen, threatening to explode volcanically during each of her encounters with Ernest. Her reading of the line 'It produces vibrations' while rocking backwards and forwards on her heels and beaming produces paroxysms of laughter in the audience.

Also Richard Orr’s Miss Prism is a tour de force of barely banked down passion, all fluttering eyelashes and wanton growls. Niall Cusack’s Mrs Overall-like turn as Merriman is also a delight.

And finally, massive 'props' must go to Robin People’s costume and set design. Lady Bracknell is a dead-ringer for John Tenniel’s Queen of Hearts and the revolving set, apparently hand-cranked by Lane, to the sound of Stevie Wonder’s 'Signed, Sealed, Delivered', is a masterstroke. The set design is exceptional. In fact, I’ve now realised for the first time in my life the importance of being furnished.

The Importance of Being Earnest runs in the Lyric Theatre until July 7.