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Review: The Importance of Being Earnest – Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Definitely not amused: Gwen Taylor as Lady Bracknell.

By Alice Fowler

There are few frothier yet more enjoyably acerbic plays than Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Its lines are so quotable – and quoted – that a trip to the Yvonne Arnaud this week is like rediscovering old friends and finding, somewhat to one’s relief, that they are just as amusing as ever.

That loving feeling: Kerry Ellis as Gwendolen and Peter Sandys-Clarke as Jack Worthing

This is a faithful production by the Original Theatre Company with a top-notch cast. Actress Gwen Taylor, familiar from a host of TV roles in shows such as Barbara, Coronation Street and Heartbeat, stars as Lady Bracknell. Another TV stalwart, Susan Penhaligon, plays Miss Prism, the hapless governess, round whose long-ago actions the plot revolves.

Louise Coulthard as Cecily checks her diary

While these venerable actresses do not disappoint, the production’s real spark comes from two younger actors, Thomas Howes as Algernon Moncrieff and Peter Sandys-Clarke as Jack Worthing (found, as you will recall, in a capacious handbag at Victoria Station). Both mine every drop of humour from Wilde’s nimble script, with the dispute over muffins and tea cakes – in which both are flung across the stage – a particular highlight.

Musical theatre star Kerry Ellis, who originated the role of Meat in the original London cast of We Will Rock You, plays Gwendolen, while Louise Coulthard is a charmingly wilful Cecily. The action takes place in the space of 24 hours, beginning in Algernon’s London flat and shifting to Jack’s country house for acts two and three.

Written in 1894 and first performed on Valentines Day 1895, the play was created when Wilde’s fame and popularity was at its peak. Just two months later came Wilde’s spectacular fall from grace, imprisonment in London and Reading Gaol and death in exile in 1900.

While Wilde satirised the snobberies of Victorian Britain, there is much that remains relevant today – the gap between town and country and, of course, the tension between the sexes – still under negotiation in the #MeToo era.

Susan Penhaligon as Miss Prism and Geoff Aymer as Rev Canon Chasuble share a romantic frisson

Most “Earnest” productions are dominated by the formidable Lady Bracknell. Gwen Taylor gives a more restrained performance, her tone sometimes more querulous than commanding. This gives Penhaligon, as Miss Prism, the chance to shine. Her mischievous, tottering performance steals the show, particularly in the final scenes.

Director Alastair Whatley suggests we should all follow Algernon’s example and go ‘Bunburying’, ie. escape from normal life on some invented pretext. A trip to this production – dedicated to the memory of the Yvonne Arnaud’s late chief executive and theatre director, Jamie Barber – seems a very good place to start.

The Importance of Being Earnest runs until Saturday, February 3.

Box office: 01483 440000 or web: www.yvonne-arnaud.co.uk

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