Oscar Wilde remains at his sharpest and wittiest best
The man was at the peak of his writing way back in the 1890s, but Oscar Wilde's classic portrayal of life among the English upper classes remains as wonderfully incisive today as it did well over a century ago. A brand new production of The Importance of Being Earnest has been delightfully put together by The Original Theatre Company with the help of a genuinely star-studded cast that ranges from 'national treasures' Gwen Taylor and Susan Penhaligon to Downton Abbey favourite Thomas Howes. Their revival of Wilde's classic play is currently enjoying a Spring tour of the UK, including a run at the Lichfield Garrick theatre - where I saw the play - from Tuesday 27th to Saturday 31st March.
The cast of The Importance of Being Earnest with Kerry Ellis (centre) as Gwendolen. Credit The Other Richard
Wilde's razor-sharp wit and observations are largely employed in recording the contrasts between life in the quiet, genteel country and town, where greater freedoms can be enjoyed. As a result, one of the central characters of the play appears as Jack in the country, where he is guardian to his 18-year-old ward Cecily, but becomes his fictitious badly behaved younger brother Earnest during his regular visits to town. Meanwhile, Jack's London-dwelling friend Algernon is equally inventive with his choice of the ailing Mr Bunbury who he uses at regular intervals in order to get out of tiresome family commitments.
Gwen Taylor (left) as Lady Bracknell with Louise Coulthard as Cecily. Credit The Other Richard
Romance rears its head with Jack wanting to marry Gwendolen, the daughter of the indomitable Lady Bracknell, while Algernon - who 'adopts' the guise of the make-believe Earnest - immediately falls in love with the delightfully innocent Cecily. But matters take on an even more bizarre turn when it transpires that both Gwendolen and Cecily appear more in love with the name Earnest than the men who have adopted it. It all makes for deliciously rich humour, even after 120-plus years, and that is before the appearance on stage of Susan Penhaligon as the hapless, forgetful Miss Prism - governess to Cecily - who carries a secret about a baby she accidentally left at a railway station almost 30 years earlier.
Thomas Howes (left) as Algernon and Peter Sandys-Clarke as Jack. Credit The Other Richard
The aforementioned star-studded cast is headed by Gwen Taylor, whose credits include Coronation Street and previous hit comedy dramas Duty Free and Barbara. Gwen commands the stage whenever she appears as Lady Bracknell - who refuses to countenance the marriage of her daughter to Jack - and not just because of the huge bustle she has to wear with her imposing dress. Susan Penhaligon, whose TV roles range from Bouquet of Barbed Wire to Upstairs Downstairs, is equally splendid as Miss Prism, who, sadly, is slightly underused by Mr Wilde. The outstanding cast also includes Thomas Howes as Lady Bracknell's idle playboy Algernon, Peter Sandys-Clarke as Jack, Louise Coulthard as Cecily, Hannah Louise Howell, who shares the role of Gwendolen with Kerry Ellis, Geoff Aymer as country rector Chasuble, and Simon Shackleton as Algernon's servant Lane.