REVIEW: The Importance of Being Earnest, Customs House, South Shields

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IT’S hard to go wrong with a production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

More than 100 years on from its original performance, Oscar Wilde’s wit-ridden play can still fill a theatre with ease.

The much-loved text has been given a loving working by London Classic Theatre (LCT), which is touring the play throughout the UK and Wilde’s native Ireland.

Harry Livingstone and Paul Sandys play the caddish gents Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, who both indulge in a spot of “Bunburying” to escape their family responsibilities to instead focus on amusement.

Algernon pretends to visit a sick friend, Bunbury, to escape his commitments, while Jack abandons his life in the country to visit his mischievous brother Earnest in town – only to take on that name himself.

While on one such sojourn, he proposes to Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax (Helen Keeley), the daughter of Lord Bracknell, who agrees to the proposal – but only because she has always wanted a man named Earnest.

Jack’s questionable ancestry leads Lady Bracknell (Carmen Rodriguez) to refuse the engagement until such a time as he has found “some relations’, and the falsity of his name also present problems when Gwendolen reveals only an Earnest would do.

His problems are only compounded when Algernon turns up at his country residence claiming to be the errant Earnest he visits in town – his real intention to be securing an engagement to Jack’s attractive 18-year-old ward Cecily Cardew (Felicity Houlbrooke).

But love, wit, and happy coincidence conquer all in the end.

Livingstone perfectly captures the roguish-yet-calm Algernon, bouncing humorously off Sandys’ skilfull potrayal of the dishonest, anxiety-ridden Jack.

Rodriguez does admirably in painting the formidable matriarch Lady Bracknell, as do Keeley and Houlbrooke in presenting the incising young ladies in love, armed to the teeth with polite-yet-cutting remarks.

Richard Stemp also deserves a mention for his part as both Lane and Merriman, butler to Algernon and Jack respectively.

A synopsis of the plays plot might be enough to put off anyone unfamiliar with the text.

But its strapline, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, holds true.

The light-weight plot and stuffed-shirt characters of The Importance of Being Earnest are a vehicle not only for Wilde’s wit, but his insightful analysis of Victorian Society and the human condition as a whole.

Many of the plays best lines are universally-relevant observations which show that however ‘advanced’ we become in technology and society, we are essentially the same basic, flawed creatures we have always been.

Ross Robertson