Oscar Wilde once said of The Importance of Being Earnest that “The first act is ingenious, the second beautiful and the third abominably clever”. This may seem immodest, but his 1895 play with its delicious aphorisms, delicate structure and veiled plea to relax the rigid social confines of Victorian society is clearly a masterpiece. So it’s sad to report that Michael Fentiman’s new production (the last in Dominic Dromgoole’s West End Wilde season) is as subtle as concrete.
If the Carry On team had ever decided to adapt the play, the results would have been similar. It opens with Algernon (Fehinti Balogun) sitting at his grand piano locked in an embrace with a shadowy male figure (representing Lord Alfred Douglas, perhaps) while a homoerotic painting frames the scene. Before long, this sexually charged Algy is getting intimate with his manservant, Lane, and there’s more.
Algy and Jack (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) feed each other muffins with lascivious intent (let’s not even consider the fact that they turn out to be brothers), a sexually frustrated Gwendolen (Pippa Nixon) is rubbing herself against that grand piano and various servants canoodle as if it’s the last days of Rome. I know that we sometimes overestimate the repressive tendencies of the Victorians but this makes a mockery of Wilde’s subtle social commentary as the subtext is suddenly erased.
The fact that many of the cast bellow their lines as if their lives depended on it suppresses the sparkle of Wilde’s writing and Sophie Thompson as Lady Bracknell is particularly at fault here. She swoops up and down the vocal register like a super-charged Ann Widdecombe, somehow letting Lady B’s delicious absurdity and increasingly disturbing pronouncements vanish into thin air. It’s a performance that manages to be both over the top and curiously underpowered.
Thankfully, things improve in Act Two, due to the wow factor of Madeleine Girling’s gorgeous set design (the Woolton manor house garden reimagined as a Victorian botanist’s paradise) and because it introduces Stella Gonet and Fiona Button (as Miss Prism and Cecily respectively) who give the best performances. Button has a modernity to her that doesn’t feel forced and you admire this feisty miss who “knows perfectly well that I look quite plain after my German lesson”. Button also possesses the comic timing which can sometimes get lost in Wilde’s abundant verbiage and in the confrontation between Cecily and Gwendolen you finally see a fleet-footed energy that is lacking elsewhere.
Gonet’s governess Miss Prism, meanwhile, seems to have entered from an entirely different production. The late scene in which she famously confesses to accidentally depositing baby Jack in a handbag at Victoria station is skilfully achieved with a creeping sense of jeopardy and Gonet manages a sort of poignant wistfulness, as if her sad life in suspended spinsterhood stems from that one grave error.
If the same heights were reached elsewhere we would have been in business. Unfortunately, it’s an exceptional moment in a raucous, muddle-headed production.