Reviewed by James Karas
The billboards and the ads went up promising a new production of “Oscar Wilde’s Immortal Comedy The Importance of Being Earnest at the Harold Pinter Theatre.” If you are in London for only a few days, you would not want to miss something like that.
When you arrive at the theatre, you notice something strange on the large billboard: “Additional Material Written by Simon Brett.” Good grief! Additional material for The Importance of Being Earnest? That is tantamount to amending Genesis 1. In any event, you try to keep an open mind and brace yourself for the worst.
I did not brace myself sufficiently for this travesty of a production. Wilde’s comedy becomes a play-within-a-play. The Bunbury Company of Players is putting on The Importance and they are in the final stages of rehearsal in George and Lavinia’s sitting room. The whole thing will be done there and we will not need the three sets that Wilde’s play calls for.
We have the “actors” of the fictitious Bunbury Company who will portray Wilde’s characters in rehearsal. The “actors” will bicker among themselves as they rehearse and things will wrong, such as no cucumber sandwiches when there is supposed to be some and a plateful of them when there should be none. It sounds funnier that it really is.
The “actors” of the Bunbury Company are mildly geriatric or let’s just say that there is a generation gap between their age and the age of the characters that they portray in Importance. This applies only to the young. Lady Bracknell, Miss Prism, Chasuble and the servants can be any age.
Nigel Havers is no doubt a fine actor but he is not exactly suitable for the role of Algernon who will woo the lovely eighteen year old Cecily played by Christine Kavanagh. Let us avoid words such as geriatric or even senior and say that a middelageiatric love affair using Wilde’s lines is not funny. To put it a bit more strongly, it looks stupid. The same applies to Martin Jarvis as John Worthing and Cherie Lunghi as Gwendolyn.
Siân Phillips would make a good Lady Bracknell and she was not bad as Lavinia if she were directed to play that virago. In this split-personality production her performance was just passable. Rosalind Ayres had better luck as Miss Prism and a fussy wardrobe lady but then those are easier roles.
Patrick Godfrey had better luck as Lavinia’s hen-pecked husband George and the servants Merriman and Lane. Niall Buggy was also good as Canon Chasuble and an “actor.”
They did not kill all the lines or the whole play because in the latter part they stuck to the script and gave Brett a wide berth. There were some laughs but the credit goes more to Wilde than to the actors and director.
Michael Frayn showed in Noises Off how funny a botched rehearsal or behind-the-scenes play can be. Director Lucy Bailey, Additional Material Writer Simon Brett and everyone involved with this travesty should keep their hands off The Immortal Comedy.
Stay away from this production.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde with Additional Material by Simon Brett continues until September 20, 2014 at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton St, London, SW1Y 4DN