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ANGELA SINGER: The Importance of Being Earnest ‘a light and lovely confection’

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Director Denzel Westley-Sanderson’s production of Oscar Wilde’s beloved comedy of manners, The Importance of Being Earnest, opens with a delightful flourish.

The English Touring Theatre’s cast waltzes onto the stage of Cambridge Arts Theatre, twirling to fulsome music and you think: Oh yes, we are in for a good time.

In Victorian dress with an inspired set by Lily Arnold, the script keeps faithfully to Wilde’s witticisms – just adding little touches that he might have added himself had he been here now, such as: “He always tells the truth – he went to Oxford.”

There is a standout performance from Abiola Owokoniran as a relaxed and suave Algernon Moncrieff – who indeed a girl might well fall in love with at first sight.

Though of course Cecily, played neatly and with a lot of humour by Phoebe Campbell, has anticipated their engagement and even their lovers’ tiffs before they had even laid eyes on each other.

She’s kept a meticulous diary of it all – which is Wilde’s way of saying a man chases a girl until she catches him.

Friends, Algernon Moncrieff, and Jack Worthing (Justice Ritchie) have each invented a character as an excuse for being called suddenly away from home.

Algernon who lives in town can disappear off to the country and Jack who lives in the country can have trips to town.

Algernon calls it Bunburying because he has invented a friend called Bunbury whose oscillating ill health means Algernon can get suddenly called away. Jack calls himself Ernest when he is in town – and has also invented a brother called Ernest as his alibi for being called away from his estate.

And what do you know! They fall in love with two girls who has each independently set her heart on marrying a man called Ernest.

Jack – as Ernest – proposes to Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen (Adele James) and Algernon – travelling to Jack’s country home impersonating Jack’s fictitious brother Ernest – gets engaged to Jack’s teenage ward, Cecily.

They might have lived happily ever after if the two young women had not discovered that their fiancés are really called Algernon and Jack.

Some of the best lines in the play are delivered by Gwendolen’s mother and Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell, whose views are always perverse.

She has a list of requirements for her daughter’s suitors. Her first question is Do you smoke. On being told yes, her reply is: “I am glad to hear it. A man should have an occupation of some kind.”

And her wonderful views on education, when Jack says: “I know nothing, Lady Bracknell” she replies that the whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. “Fortunately, in England at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes.”

On its first night at Cambridge Arts Theatre, the play was well received.

Many of us have grown up knowing the plot but it never seems any the less clever or the lines any the less witty no matter how many times you see the play.

With a giant Lady Bracknell played by Daniel Jacob (aka Vinegar Strokes from Ru Paul’s Drag Race), this is an ensemble production, well-choreographed, fast-paced with a lot of energy. Valentine Hanson was excellent value as the butler Lane and the servant Merriman.

If this production has a smidgeon of a weakness, it is that though it keeps to Wilde’s ingenious script, it just sometimes strays from the arch manner which makes it funny.

The fun of the cattiness between Cecily and Gwendolen over a genteel afternoon tea in the garden – when they mistakenly think they are both engaged to the same Ernest – is that though what they are saying is sharp as daggers, they say it with smiles. 

But overall, this is a light and lovely confection paying homage to some of the best lines in British theatre.

The Importance of Being Earnest is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until September 24. Then the New Wolsey, Ipswich, from September 27 to October 1, Northern Stage, Newcastle, October 4-8, Liverpool Playhouse from October 11-15, Rose Theatre, London November 1-12.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Angela Singer is theatre critic for CambsNewsOnline

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