Kicking off a regional tour with a run at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Alastair Whatley’s jovial and energetic staging of The Importance of Being Earnest is a cheerful, charming, and perfectly pleasant affair.
Setting a buoyant pace, Whatley peppers his production with plenty of nonverbal asides and borderline slapstick physicality. There are more than a few childish scuffles, and at one point an undignified bun fight breaks out, but the spirited silliness somehow sharpens, rather than detract from Wilde’s crisp witticisms.
Thomas Howes makes himself comfortable in the role of frivolous fop Algernon, draping himself over every stick of furniture, nailing every epigram with an insouciant blend of cynicism and charisma. Over the course of the show, he establishes a fine double act with Peter Sandys-Clarke’s blustery, buttoned-down Jack, who clings on to his dignity in spite of the mounting absurdity.
Louise Coulthard is strong, too, as a precocious Cecily, archly mimicking the social mores of her contemporaries. Accomplished singer Kerry Ellis gives a capable performance as Gwendoline, all pursed lips and sharp, meaningful glances. Gwen Taylor’s Lady Bracknell, meanwhile, possesses more warmth than most interpretations give her, endowed with a playfulness which grants the character an unexpected dimension, even if it occasionally jars.
Gabriella Slade’s gorgeous set incorporates art nouveau arches flecked with the brass and burnished gold tones of a Klimt painting. Her costumes are no less lavish, featuring louche silks, bold patterns, and colour palettes which echo the characters’ personalities. Each couple’s outfits complement one another tastefully, while Lady Bracknell’s lilac and yellow ensemble is as striking as her overbearing demeanour.