Most of the characters in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest are concerned with appearances. Algernon Moncrieff keeps track of current trends, Lady Bracknell obsesses over status and Gwendolen Fairfax wishes to marry a man with a distinguished name.
This idea of surfaces, of people forever projecting an image, clearly informs both the design and direction of Suba Das’ production. David Woodhead’s drawing-room set exploits the Victorian splendour of Bolton’s Albert Halls, incorporating lighting and camera equipment. These are used to capture fleeting portraits in tableaux as characters pose to present the most attractive version of themselves.
Often looking out directly into the auditorium, Jack Hardwick as Algernon and Dean Fagan as Jack Worthing quickly establish a rapport with the audience. Fagan’s eyes brilliantly express his confusion and horror, his eyebrows dancing in merriment. Hardwick is at ease as he moves across the stage, his gestures adding comic emphasis.
Das gives the women greater agency. Sarah Ball’s Lady Bracknell shouts to be heard, Melissa Lowe’s Cecily is more knowing than naïve and Vicky Entwistle is an unconventional Miss Prism, playful and idiosyncratic. The visual displays of sexual desire feel unnecessary though. They leave nothing to the imagination – no room for subtext.
The strongest performances are those that make the most of the dialogue: Hardwick, Fagan and Elizabeth Twells (as Gwendolen) all deliver their lines with clarity and bite. But ultimately, though the characters are surrounded by gilt-edged paintings, Wilde’s language remains the most dazzling thing in the room.