While The Importance of Being Earnest was still running in the West End, Oscar Wilde’s name was taken off the playbills and creditors were seizing his home and goods as he stood in the dock accused of unnatural crimes.
Despite having written the most brilliantly skewering comedy about class no English person would have dared attempt, Irishman Wilde’s punishment was prison, exile and disgrace. His reward was literary immortality.
This excellent production of the quintessential comedy shows exactly why Wilde is still regarded as the consummate genius of excoriating wit and why the play is still utterly current in our status-obsessed society.
It’s brought bang up to date right from the very start with Isla Shaw’s spectacular set, a completely mirrored Mayfair drawing room the morning after the night before. Edward Franklin as Algernon Moncrieff and Fela Lufadeju as John Worthing effortlessly set the tone for the rest of the evening, Algernon as the unrepentant hedonist and John posing as a puritan with a cast iron alibi.
The first half is a reliable exposition of this masterpiece on the grand scale but the evening really begins to take off after the interval as the production suddenly gels when the absurdities are revealed as the everyday normalities of the world Wilde is describing.
Here the characters’ complexities are perfectly mirrored in the plot – everyone is to some extent living a private life to counterbalance the strictures of the age.
Cathy Tyson is delightfully imperious as Lady Bracknell, while Martha Mackintosh as daughter Gwendolen oozes the assured self-confidence appropriate to an heiress who knows her own worth.
Sharon Phul is charmingly believable as the young Cecily Cardew living her own romantic secret life while Angela Clerkin adds a rare geniality to the role of her governess Miss Prism. Similarly, Dominic Gately makes the Rev Chasuble a genial head-in-the–clouds character rather than the usual stereotyped buffoon.
But there’s always a star, even in this august company, and here it’s Darren Bennett in the dual role of Algy’s Butler Lane and John’s footman Merriman, the first a briskly efficient and business-like Cockney, the second a camp queen who’s seen it all before.
The second half of the evening makes this possibly the best production of the play I’ve ever seen. It must have cost a fortune to stage, but every penny shows. I’d gladly see it again tomorrow. A triumph.
The Importance of Being Earnest runs at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until September 24. For tickets phone 0121 236 4455 or visit the online box office.