REVIEW: The Importance Of Being Earnest, Harold Pinter Theatre (0 Stars)

The Importance Of Being Earnest. Photo: Tristram Kenton
The Importance Of Being Earnest. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The Importance Of Being Earnest
Harold Pinter Theatre
19 July 2014
0 Stars

Now playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre is a play, conceived and directed by Lucy Bailey, aided and abetted by designer William Dudley and writer Simon Brett, which pretends to be The Importance Of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.

It is not.

Indeed, it is about as far away from the piece of perfect, absurd confection that Wilde’s masterpiece is as Adolph Hitler is from Nelson Mandella.

People who have purchased tickets thinking they are to experience Wilde’s glorious trivial comedy for serious people should demand refunds. Because Bailey has not attempted to direct that play. To ascribe anything happening on the Harold Pinter Stage to Wilde is to obfuscate and lie – this is not The Importance of Being Earnest.

It’s a stupid, vacuous play about an old group of amateur thespians rehearsing a production of Wilde’s great play. As a concept, woeful does not come close.

In the programme, Bailey and Dudley are quoted as taking inspiration from, of all things, Tom Stoppard’s magnificent Arcadia:

“In Arcadia, there are two distinct worlds in the one unchanging house, separated by a gap of nearly 200 years. Both occupy the stage, unaware of each other’s presence. We remember it being done so fluidly and brilliantly – the way in which one generation would appear just as the other left the stage. It was very moving, and we hope we can achieve something similar as we shift the action from 2014 back to 1895”.

This is so profoundly stupid as to be almost inconceivable. Stupid, inconceivable plagiarism.

Arcadia was written specifically to have the one house shared by two distinct groups, one of whom, the researchers, were constantly aware of and thinking about the other group – the Lord Byron contemporaries.

Wilde wrote a play about fictional characters. Bailey and Dudley have created a play and a set with their own characters – a group of amateur actors rehearsing Wilde’s great play. There are not two distinct groups on the one set: there is one group on the one set doing two different things. It has nothing to do with Arcadia and it is absurd to suggest it does, to feebly seek to grab the cloak of respectability through the Stoppard door.

The gifted Michael Frayn has already delivered a comic masterpiece about the way backstage shenanigans can impact upon live theatre. It’s called Noises Off. Simon Brett’s tawdry and singularly unfunny claptrap here poses no problems for Frayn’s legacy.

So – it’s not Wilde, not Stoppard and not Frayn.

It’s just rubbish. Masquerading as The Importance of Being Earnest.

And it’s ageist and horrendously condescending to the many many good people who do excellent work in unpaid community theatre.

Bailey should have just let the cast do the job, play the roles which Wilde wrote. As Judi Dench proved so effortlessly in A Midsummers’ Night Dream at the Rose Kingston, age does not necessarily mean a performer is precluded from playing a role generally played by younger persons.

There are traces of excellence about many of the performances, but because they have to play non-professionals playing the Wildean characters, the audience never actually gets to see the Wildean characters. The non-professional characters get in the way.

Siân Phillips could have been a splendid Lady Bracknell, as, indeed, could Cherie Lunghi. Lunghi could have been a glorious Gwendolyn, but not when doing the nonsense Bailey has her do as the former National Theatre actress, Maria. Both Nigel Havers (Algernon) and Martin Jarvis (Jack) might have been okay if they were just playing Wilde, and the same goes for Niall Buggy (Canon Chasuble) and Rosalind Ayres (Miss Prism). The others…not so much.

But this is not Wilde – and it is certainly not The Importance Of Being Earnest.

More accurately, it might be called Earnestly Trying To Be Important or The Importance Of Being Earnest in Rehearsal by the Bunbury Players.

Patrons should demand their money back.

Because Lucy Bailey has presided over a fraud – this is not Wilde’s play and it doesn’t pretend to be when you are in your expensive seat.

But to lure you to pay for the ticket, it masquerades as Wilde’s wonderfully witty and practically perfect play.

It’s an absolute disgrace.

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