Disasterous revival of the best comedy in the English language

Disasterous revival of the best comedy in the English language

Robert Tanitch reviews The Importance of Being Earnest at Harold Pinter Theatre, London SW1

How can you justify the casting of Nigel Havers, Martin Jarvis, Cherie Lunghi and Christine Kavanagh in Oscar Wilde’s comedy when they, in their seventies, sixties and late fifties respectively, are so obviously far too old to be acting the roles they have to play?

Well, you can pretend, as they do here, that they are amateur actors rehearsing the play in the home of one of the actors. You can throw in extra dialogue by Simon Brett and add some comic business with props of the sort you might find in a production of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off.

You can do all this and it’s an absolute disaster.

The Importance of Being Earnest is the wittiest play in the English language, much loved and regularly performed all over the world. Rarely can Wilde have played to less laughter than he does in Lucy Bailey’s crass production.

Havers and Jarvis played Algy and John Worthing at the National Theatre to Judi Dench’s Lady Bracknell in 1982 so they know what they are doing, but the conceit just doesn’t work and spoils the play.

Basic CMYKThere is only one performance which is remotely acceptable and that is by Sian Phillips as Lady Bracknell. The least acceptable is Niall Buggy’s Canon Chasuble.

There is an irony that this particular production is at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Years ago Jonathan Miller wanted to stage The Importance of Being Earnest at the National Theatre with an all-male cast, as if it were being acted in a POW camp during World War 2. Leo McKern was to play Lady Bracknell.

Harold Pinter was on the NT Board and was adamant that directors had a greater responsibility to a dead dramatist than a living one and he vetoed the proposal and it was never staged.

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