THE grand finale of Dominic Dromgoole’s attractive if variable Oscar Wilde season is the playwright’s most popular play and one of the most perfect comedies ever written in the English language.
The Importance Of Being Earnest is rarely off the stage so what can a new production bring that we haven’t seen before?
Well, an unusually eccentric Lady Bracknell for a start.
Sophie Thompson’s vowel-gargling, register-defying performance is exceptionally funny as she swoops from soprano to tenor across a line.
Pippa Nixon’s Gwendolen and Fiona Button’s Cecily deliver uncorseted performances of simmering sexuality in the most amusing fashion while Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s Jack and Fehinti Balogun’s Algy are a well-matched brace of friends, the former’s upright rectitude rubbing up against the latter’s louche bisexuality with a wit that strikes sparks.
Director Michael Fentiman dials up the volume and the pace with some loss of subtlety but the laughs still derive from Wilde which can only be a good thing.
But he fabricates a gay subplot about Algy having an affair with his manservant Lane (the terrific Geoffrey Freshwater) and, unacceptably, has added a few lines to Wilde’s text to support his modifications.
And a homoerotic painting on his wall would have given Lady Bracknell a fit of the vapours.
But the compensations are considerable. The heightened artificiality of the tone is ameliorated in the second act with the delightful hesitancy between Miss Prism (a peerless Stella Gonet) and Jeremy Swift’s ardent Canon Chasuble.
Best of all, the ultimate confrontation between Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism has real dramatic weight (“Prism! Where is that baby?”).
Rarely have I felt so keenly the dreadful import of the loss of a child through “a moment of mental abstraction”. In this moment, Fentiman gets it absolutely right.