Review: The Importance of Being Earnest at the Vaudeville

Oscar Wilde’s classic play The Importance of Being Earnest is well-known but rarely reproduced, especially on as large a scale as a theatre in the West End. Like most of Wilde’s work it is charming, amusing and intelligent, but the language is still distinctly dated and awash with cultural references that visitors to our theatre scene wouldn’t understand. And, of course, cousins marrying cousins isn’t quite our social norm these days.

David Suchet as Lady Bracknell

Happily, Adrian Noble didn’t let that deter him from a brand new production at the Vaudeville. Boasting the immeasurable David Suchet in drag as Lady Bracknell, the play opened in June to rave reviews and has been playing to a packed house every night since.

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Word by word

As director, Noble and his producers made the wise decision not to change the words of the play. Rather than bringing in a modern playwrite to adapt the script, Wilde is still listed as the wordsmith of this 2015 production, split into three neat and tidy acts. Although a few of Wilde’s best jokes sometimes fell flat with an audience who didn’t quite understand, allowing his clean, precise lines to shine was a brave but correct decision. With such a small cast and so little action – all the humour comes from using words to trick and deceive – it is necessary to keep Wilde’s tone and his original intentions.

Tight choreography and a careful cast

Relying solely on a good script is a tremendously difficult thing for modern actors and audiences. So much emphasis is placed on set design, music, symbolism, artistic movement that when all of that is stripped away, it can be difficult for an audience to focus just on what is being said.

As a unit, the cast were almost flawless. Movements, facial expressions and body language were down to a comic T, with impeccable timing and intonation. Michael Benz, as Ernest, and Philip Cumbus as Algernon, made the most of a slightly slow first act but the real comedy shone after the first interval. High praise has to be awarded to Emily Barber, as Gwendolen, and Imogen Doel, as Cecily, who had the audience howling with laughter throughout Act Two. Their interaction, both physical and verbal, was hysterically funny without being overplayed.

Suchet dresses up

Having David Suchet headline the play as the formidable Lady Bracknell, in full and splendid drag, was sure to guarantee the success of this production. But that doesn’t make Suchet’s performance any less wonderful or entertaining. Known and loved by the British public as Hercule Poirot, Suchet has never been one to shy away from a challenge. His flamboyant entrance in Act One was met with applause and cheers, paving the way for him to shine in the rest of the performance.

It was obviously him yet, at the same time, it was also clear that everyone bought into his performance as Lady Bracknell. It wasn’t silly or like dress up – his emotion was evident, his movements just as neat and delicate as those of Doel and Barber. The end of the final scene, poignantly focused on Suchet wiping tears from his eyes as the lights faded to black, was a true homage to a wonderful British actor.

Laid out with clean, effective sets and brave in its simplicity, Noble’s production proves the ability of some actors to tell a story with nothing but an excellent script, and why it’s important not to mess with perfection.