The importance of being Earnest

‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is a mockery of the aristocracy, written by Dublin-born playwright Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. This timeless comedy was an immediate triumph when first performed in 1895. Oscar was one of London’s most fashionable playwrights. After studying at Dublin and Oxford University, he lectured in the United States and Canada. He also wrote ‘Salome’, but was refused a performance licence.

Wilde prosecuted the father of his lover, the Marquis of Queensberry, for libel but the defence determined that he was gay, so instead Wilde was imprisoned for two years’ hard labour. He died in Paris aged only 46 – sadly destitute.

The writing style of this play allows it to be presented in many ways. I have seen cross-dressing, a farce, a risqué version, one where the actors were asked to ‘ham it up’, a presentation where the young men were both played by gentlemen holding Seniors Cards, thankfully here we have the true Wilde version. It is acted with a strong grasp of the characters yet with a subtle and droll style of delivery. There are many dry comments and snide remarks slipped into the script, please try and catch them all.

This brilliant and extremely lively, two-and-a-half-hour satire – with a laugh a minute – from the Garrick Theatre Club can be seen at the Garrick Theatre, 16 Meadow Street in Guildford. The curtain rises at 8.00 pm on these ingenious and yet absurd performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings until Saturday 12th December. There are matinées at 2.00 pm on Sunday 29th November and 6th December.

This theatre is small and unfortunately Covid has made it smaller, please book early.

The Scene:           It is 1897 in the south of England, the Victorian era when, despite Queen Victoria having 9 children, sex is an awfully bad word. 

 The Set:               Act 1      Afternoon teatime in Algernon’s aristocratic sitting room in Half Moon Street. Due to the massive scene changes that are to take place, the white walls only have a couple of oil paintings and pale peppermint flock wallpaper. However, the well-appointed furnishings (Roxi Moore) were superb. Oak framed chaise-longue and matching chairs. In the corner was a beautiful plant stand, centre stage a dining table set with finest Royal Doulton crockery and to the side a small wine table.

Act 2      Is in the well-tended country garden of Jack Worthing’s Hertfordshire manor. The side walls are covered by ivy and trellising. The rear dark limestone wall has two arches and climbing roses: centre stage a full set of garden furniture.

Act 3      Jack’s drawing room has patio doors leading onto the garden, furnished with a fine collection of Victorian furniture. A Victorian oak book trough, a tea trolley, a dining table replete with silver wear and more fine china.

Congratulations to James Nailen for his ingenious set design with adaptability. Many hours of work – mainly by James – went into the construction. The delightful set painting was by the Compton family – Michelle, Harry and Sami.

The lighting and sound design, along with the technical operation, was by Caleb Hombergen-Crute. His mentors and assistants were Reuben Fildes, Geoff Holt, Stuart Ridgeway and Arund Pearce.

Stage manager Roxi Moore and assistant Harry Compton had huge set changes, which in themselves would have been a nightmare, but with such a small stage and virtually no wings where does one put the two sitting room furnishings and all of the garden décor? First you get a stage mentor! I have never heard of this position before but the clever skills of Chelsea Knight were certainly required. Then with Steven O’Halloran’s muscles the scene-change magic took place.

The music selection and editing – mainly from Gilbert and Sullivan – was by Lyn Brown.

Algernon(Sean Wcislo)  is a young, flashy but impoverished society gentleman. Lane, his butler (Alan Shaw) or ‘gentleman’s gentleman’ as they were known then, tidies up Algernon’s flat in preparation for the arrival of the dreaded aunt; the curt and domineering Lady Bracknell (Siobhán Vincent), one of society’s Grande Dames, who will be accompanied by her beautiful daughter, Gwendolen (Pauline Rosman).

Unexpectedly, Algernon’s best friend Ernest (Jonathan Hoey) a landed gentleman, calls around to tell the self-centred Algernon that he intends proposing to the ever-adoring Gwendolen.

Algernon mentions to Ernest that he has found a cigarette case with a love message to ‘Jack’ engraved in it. Could it be that Ernest is leading a double life? Who is Algernon’s secret friend ‘Bunbury’?

The lecherous Algernon discovers that Jack’s ward, Cecily (Olivia Fellows) is almost 18 years old, wealthy and desperate for a boyfriend. Surreptitiously, Algernon finds out where she lives and decides to pay her a visit, posing as her ward, Jack’s brother. Algernon arrives whilst Cecily is studying with her elderly tutor and governess, Miss Prism (Kerry Goode). Being a typical teenager, Cecily is immediately besotted with Algernon. When the prim Miss Prism goes out for a walk with her close – nudge nudge, wink wink – Scottish friend (immaculate accent), the local rector Dr. Chasuble (Ray Egan), for the first time in her life, the passions flow – well trickles. When they return from the walk there are numerous interruptions from Cecily’s senile butler, Merriman (Alan Shaw) and his two housemaids – and carers – Milly (Jenna McGoughan-Shaw) and Tilly (Samantha ‘Sami’ Compton) who cramp Miss Prism’s style.

Will love come true for anyone?

Make-up artiste, Tegan Harris has done a wonderful job, creating natural aging on Merriman.

The costumes! What can one say? Marjorie DeCaux, Colleen Bradford, Sarah-Jane Hombergen-Crute have produced perfection. The outfits were accurate for the period and stunning. From Algy’s the beautifully tailored, tweed Norfolk shooting jacket, to the highly detailed pastel silks of the young women. Then there was Lady Bracknell’s amazing coffee coloured satin outfit, complete with a matching feathered fascinators and bronze spangled jewellery. Very impressed with the fine collection of quizzers and lorgnettes.

All the costumes were perfectly fitted and stitched. Tremendous detail. Even when being worn, care was taken with minor embellishments such as cufflinks, cravat pins and even leaving the bottom button of a waistcoat undone. Then there were the maids’, butlers’ and vicar’s regalia, all perfectly correct. The actors seemed very at home in their costumes, with the ladies swirling their dresses and the men flicking their coat tails as they sat down.

Even though unyielding director, Douglas Sutherland-Bruce and his wonderful assistant director Kerry Goode are chalk and cheese, as a team they are magnificent. The cast was immaculate, all word perfect, superb diction with precise upper-class English accents.

I have seen Jonathan Hoey in nine plays, and I have followed Sean through fifteen productions over 5 years, but never seen these actors work together. What a remarkable natural chemistry flowed, they bounced every line perfectly with their precise facial expressions and twitches terrific. I have seen Lady Bracknell in many guises, with every audience anticipating ‘A handbag!’, but in this performance Siobhán gave us so much more. You will really feel sorry for the loving couples as this viper spits her cruel words. The ingenious dialogue has so many more ‘digs’ and insults than I have ever noticed in the past.

With two or three of the cast still attending school, I am sure there is a great future ahead. EVERY actor was spot on with voice, intonation, expression and body language.

When I initially heard that ‘The Importance of being Earnest’ was being staged yet again – I must have seen it more than a dozen times – I asked ‘Why?’ The answer is Douglas and his 100% dedicated cast presented the genuine classic. If the original is brilliant conceived, why try to jazz it up?

This production brought a rare standing ovation from me. HIGHLY recommended. Congrats to all concerned.