Review: The Importance Of Being Earnest, Grand Opera House

A play within a play: Martin Jarvis, Rosalind Ayres, Sian Phillips and Nigel Havers in The Importance Of Being Earnest. Photographs: Tristram Kenton
19 Nov 2015 @ 11.42 am
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Grand Opera House, York

Till Sat Nov 21 @ 7.30pm; 2.30pm matinees Thurs & Sat


Tickets and details

When I first saw the poster for this show, I was a little concerned by the line “Additional material written by Simon Brett”. I’d never considered that Oscar Wilde needed a co-writer and sadly, on the evidence of last night’s performance, I can now report confidently that he doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a lot of Simon Brett’s writing, especially the witty Charles Paris crime novels. But shoehorning an extra layer of story into a finely-worked jewel like The Importance of Being Earnest is a very bad idea indeed.

The reason this additional material is deemed necessary seems to come down to actors’ nostalgia.

In 1982, Martin Jarvis and Nigel Havers played Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff in The Importance Of Being Earnest at the National Theatre.

According to an interview with the BBC, Havers suggested to Martin a couple of years ago that it would be fun to reprise their roles.

The problem is that Jack and Algy are supposed to be in their twenties, whereas Havers is now 62, and Jarvis 72. It was to overcome this disparity in age that the pair dreamed up the framing device for this production – that it is being performed by an elderly amateur dramatic group, the Bunbury Company of Players.

And here is where the problem starts.

First act mishmash

Thoroughly enjoyable – Rosalind Ayres as Miss Prism
Thoroughly enjoyable – Rosalind Ayres as Miss Prism

The entire first act is a mishmash of the framing conceit – the dress rehearsal of the play – and the actual play itself. This does no service to either story.

Wilde’s lines are honed and polished, they have a rhythm and a music, and they require perfect timing. They are not supposed to be naturalistic.

Interrupting them with conversations about costume, props and misplaced sound cues disrupts Wilde’s play without ever actually fleshing out the characters in the Bunbury Company of Players.

We simply don’t care enough about them to find them more than mildly amusing, and too many possible humorous situations are simply thrown away.

I did enjoy the recurring joke about Nigel Anthony (George Spelman/ Lane / Merriman) trying to catch the TV coverage of the Test match, although by the middle of the first act, I would much rather have been watching the cricket with him than the performance on the stage.

Marvellous in both roles – Sian Phillips
Marvellous in both roles – Sian Phillips

Sian Phillips, as Lavinia Spelman/ Lady Bracknell, is marvellous in both roles, receiving well-deserved laughter when trying out the famous line, “A handbaaag??” when she thinks she is alone on set.

Apparently she turned the role down when she was 64, because she felt she was too old for it. Here, at 81, her perfectly pitched performance is the only thing worth watching in the whole of the first act, and the undisputed backbone of the second.

Cast hit their stride

The concept of an am-dram performance of a play can be extremely funny, as shown by the Mischief Theatre Company (The Play That Goes Wrong, Peter Pan Goes Wrong). Their comedies work because the actual play they are staging takes second place to the story of their performance.

This can’t be done with a play of the calibre of The Importance Of Being Earnest, and it is why this performance fails so utterly.

Reprising their roles… Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis
Reprising their roles… Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis
As always, the front of house staff were very friendly and helpful with my wheelchair. Level access is partway down King Street, but the box office staff need to be alerted when you arrive, so that they can unlock the door. The accessible toilet next to this door is not overly generous in size, but is well-equipped and very clean. There is always an usher nearby if you need help. Thankfully, the pavement on King Street is currently being improved, which should make the journey to and from the level access door much less bumpy and problematic.

It’s like bad jazz – you can occasionally hear a good tune lurking underneath, but some idiot keeps trumpeting away on top of it.

If I had not been reviewing this performance, I would have left at the interval – something I have never done in 50 years of theatregoing. Luckily, however, the second half was much better than the first, because it was almost entirely Oscar Wilde.

The cast really hit their stride, and as a result got far more laughter and applause from the audience.

Christine Kavanagh (Cecily Cardew) and Carmen du Sautoy (Gwendolen Fairfax) worked particularly well together, and I thoroughly enjoyed Rosalind Ayres’ Miss Prism.

Algy Moncrieff is the kind of charming rogue that Nigel Havers has been playing for years, but I found Martin Jarvis’ Jack Worthing unbearably arch and rather overcooked. As he says himself, in his persona of actor/ director Anthony Scottney: “Too much panto, not enough Oscar”.