Some critics had a sense of humour failure over the West End revival of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which presents the piece as if from a group of ageing amateur thespians.
Don’t heed the reviews, from the very people who lavisly praised a not very funny recent outing of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off — to which this Importance bears a similarity. Frayn’s running gag about a plate of sardines, for instance, is replaced, in Simon Brett’s new material, by one about cucumber sandwiches.
The framing device is applied under director Lucy Bailey to permit John Worthing and his friend Algernon Montcrieff to be played credibly — in one sense of the word at least — by Martin Jarvis and Nigel Havers.
Only in an institution such as the Bunbury Company of Players, of Brett’s invention, would men of 72 (Jarvis) and 62 portray characters who, in the first instance, claims to be 29 and in the second must be assumed to be around the same age.
Tact dictates I should not reveal the ages of Cherie Lunghi and Christine Kavanagh who play their respective fiancées (as they become), Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew.
The play is performed as if at the dress rehearsal for the Bunburys’ Importance, in a house belonging to two of the company’s principal figures. These are Lavinia, whose effortless superiority — nicely caught by Siân Phillips — makes her ideal to play Lady Bracknell, and her husband (Patrick Godfrey) who, against type, shows us Algernon’s drily witty manservant Lane and Merriman, butler at Jack’s country mansion to which the action later shifts.
In all scenes in which she figures, Miss Phillip’s Lady B. supplies the comic focus, with the character’s mercenary preoccupations carefully underlined.
Messrs Jarvis and Havers perform with polished accomplishment, the former utterly faultless as the pompous Worthing and Havers — despite his years — still believable as the madcap young Algie.
There is huge enjoyment, too, from Rosalind Ayres as the professionally prim but emotionally stirred governess Miss Prism and the wonderful Niall Buggy as that “permanent public temptation” — as she sees him — Canon Chasuble.
That the fastidious cleric is played by the Bunburys’ drunk — constantly to be seen taken surreptitious swigs from his host’s whisky bottle and always seemingly on the point of muffing his lines — is reason alone to applaud the existence of the framing device.
The Importance of Being Earnest
Harold Pinter Theatre
Until September 20
Box office: 0844 871 7622, atg tickets.com
Coming to Waterside, Aylesbury, Oct 6-11
Box office: 0844 871 7615, atgtickets.com