Almost every line in Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest is a quote. His words have been repurposed as punchlines, on posters and pencil cases.
This new production escapes the cliches normally wrought by the weight of its status as a classic. Director Nikolai Foster has freed Wilde’s text and what we see on stage is the play as it was written, not as consecutive generations of audiences have decided it should be. The handbag is definitely still there, but Lady Bracknell won’t beat you around the head with it.
A sparkling cast commit to Wilde’s characters, and each laugh is well earned through unlocking a witticism from the page, not through some knowing pastiche. Sharan Phull and Martha Mackintosh make for a particularly entertaining double act as Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax, and Edward Franklin has perfected the look of someone caught mid mischief. There’s a true ensemble feel to the production, and while that means Lady Bracknell is less of a linchpin, Cathy Tyson’s hailstorm delivery ensures she is no less formidable.
Designer Isla Shaw eschews the clutter of the era in favour of an unfussy set built from mirrored panels, which provides an efficient conduit to the vanity, decadence and superficiality of Wilde’s world. Metallic balloons, disco lights and dance music lend a city flat the feel of a tacky wedding venue, whilst hanging paper roses and warm lighting bouncing from each wall lend a romantic vibe to the country manor house.
The approach is refreshing if not new, and there are a few slow moments, especially early on. But by taking this comedy seriously, the company has delivered a fun and accessible new production.