REVIEW: The Importance Of Being Earnest, Vaudeville Theatre ✭✭✭

David Suchet In The Importance Of Being Earnest

The Importance Of Being Earnest
Vaudeville Theatre

Penelope Wilton. Eileen Atkins. Maureen Lipman. Lindsay Duncan. Fiona Shaw. Frances Barber. Samantha Bond. Anna Chancellor. Deborah Findlay. Hermione Norris. Emma Fielding. Helen Mirren. Jane Asher. Joanna Lumley. Juliet Stevenson. Emma Thompson. Harriet Walter. Kim Cattrall. Amanda Donohoe. Alex Kingston. Barbara Flynn.

Without really thinking too hard, it is quite easy to produce a list of formidable and very talented actresses, any of whom one would pay good money to see play Lady Bracknell, perhaps Oscar Wilde’s most enduring character, in the West End. Dames Dench, Smith and Keith have all played the role in the West End, and so too, sort of, did Siân Phillips: see our review of that production here. There are not that many fabulous parts for woman of a certain age, but Lady Bracknell is one of them. There will be many other worthy, wondrous actresses, not listed above, who also could play the role with great distinction.

It’s not like the play is presented with the frequency of, say, Hamlet, which centres on a part which younger actors feel the need to tackle: they want “to give” their take on the Prince of Denmark, just as older actors want to give their Lear or Willy Loman or Malvolio. Why shouldn’t actresses be given first dibs at giving their Lady Bracknell when a production of The Importance Of Being Earnest is being mounted, especially in the West End?

The answer, of course, is that they should. Men should not play Lady Bracknell because no man can bring anything to the part that a woman can’t, the part was not written for a man to play, and there is no scarcity of roles for men to play. It’s just ego on the part of the actor and an undisguised attempt to lure bums to seats. Let great actresses get their teeth into one of the great comedy roles of all time. That should be the mantra. Casting a man seems to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of theatre life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.

And yet, unaccountably, David Suchet is playing Lady Bracknell in Adrian Noble’s revival of Wilde’s great play in a season which has just commenced at the Vaudeville Theatre. Well, not unaccountably – the reasons are clear. Suchet wanted to do a comedy, wanted to wear a dress, and backers could smell the money for miles. But should that be enough reason to take a plum role from a worthy woman? How, one wonders idly, would Suchet feel if a woman was chosen to play Lear or Malvolio ahead of him?

One presumes that to Suchet, like Lady Bracknell herself, such considerations would be immaterial. Whether they are or not, the only question now worth asking is this: does David Suchet make an excellent Lady Bracknell?

No, he does not.

Taking the cue for his especially unfunny performance from the references in the script to gorgon, monster and myth, Suchet waddles into view, corseted, gloved and buttoned up, rather like a cartoon turkey. Foghorn Leghorn in drag. He squawks rather than talks, and his voice is set in a relentlessly colourless high pitch. Artifice not art. He can shoot off a withering look with effortless abandon, but everything about his Lady Bracknell is entirely false, overdone, unsubtle, and desperate for approval.

Lady Bracknell is none of those things. She is a creature of society, a wife, a mother, a Lady…she is a real person. Indomitable. The humour which should abound from her comes from her sincerity, her beliefs, her exacting standards, and her desire to ensure money is plentiful for her and her family. It doesn’t come from mugging or pursed lips pursuing cheap laughs.

The interrogation of Jack in Act One of the play is one of the wittiest, funniest exchanges ever written. Here, there were no laughs from me for Lady Bracknell; Jack managed a few, but she made it hard work for him. The simple truth is that a man in a dress, no matter how fine an actor the man might otherwise be, just cannot succeed in the role of Lady Bracknell unless the man plays her as a woman – not as a Wagnerian drag queen with stentorian lips, prissy affectations, and an overwhelming “look at me” sensibility. Lady Bracknell is not the starring role in the play and it is a schoolboy error to so regard her.

This becomes particularly egregious at the play’s end where, unfathomably, Suchet plays the final moments as though Lady Bracknell has lost something of vital significance. Suchet is left alone onstage, in a spotlight. A shameless bid for a standing ovation which, rightly, went unmet. Lady Bracknell has no reason to be unhappy – her daughter’s marriage is secured, and her nephew, Algernon, is marrying Cicely who is very rich. The gloom is self-indulgent twaddle from Suchet.

Of course, Noble is equally culpable. He ought to have held tighter to the directorial reins.

David Suchet In The Importance Of Being Earnest

This is true too when it comes to Miss Prism (Michelle Dotrice) and Canon Chasuble (Richard O’Callaghan); neither are presented as real people. The excesses of the idiosyncrasies which adorn their performances do not make for humour. Played straight and real, those two characters can be hysterically funny. Not here.

Where Noble does strike gold, however, is in the quartet of lovers: Gwendolyn, Jack, Cicely and Algernon. Without any question, Emily Barber and Imogen Doel are utterly exquisite, fabulously surprising, and inventively adorable as, respectively, Ms Fairfax and Ms Cardew. I have never seen better performances of those roles on any professional stage.

Barber is sensational as the haughty, entitled and superior Gwendolyn. Her bearing, her phrasing, her immaculate stature, her finely judged pronunciation – everything is just so. She is clearly the daughter created by her mother, but with an energy, a spirit of her own. Jack is right to query Algernon about whether this Gwendolyn will end up like her mother. Barber radiates city refinement and that sense of rich, indolent excess that only the wealthy upper class can have. But because her sense of humour is so sharply drawn (her pronunciation of Bracknell would do Hyacinth Bucket proud), she is no mini-me Gorgon. Barber is astonishingly good.

So is Doel, who makes Cicely a country girl through and through; gentle, romantic, slightly feral when permitted, hearty, wide-eyed, rustic but with a heart the size of the Sun. With a marvellously throaty voice, winningly unspoilt, and a perfect sense of the age of Cicely, mid-point between childhood and young adulthood, Doel is totally believable and a thoroughly delicious opposite for Gwendolyn. Her comic timing is outstanding.

The famous scene in Act Two where Gwendolyn and Cicely meet, instantly adore each other, talk, immediately hate each other, duel (over tea, sugar, bread and butter and tea cake), discuss spades, uncover deception, and then bond closer than hydrogen and oxygen in water is devastatingly done; truly and freshly funny, as both women do inspired work.

Algernon is here played by Philip Cumbus, a talented and affable young actor, who has not taken the time to remove modernity from his approach; he needs to be more 200 years ago occasionally. But he gorges on the delights the part offers, and not just on the cucumber sandwiches and muffins. There is an errant playfulness which is admirable, and a deeply ingrained sense of ostentatiousness about everything Cumbus does. And he and Doel convince absolutely as the victims of love at first sight, as well as first mention. Algernon’s hunger and enthusiasm for Cicely matches his fervour for muffins.

The Importance Of Being Earnest at Vaudeville Theatre

Unsurprisingly, the gifted Michael Benz is a spiffing Jack/Earnest. His earnestness about all things is infectious and he holds the play together by providing the warm, funny and adorable central character who it is impossible not to root for. He wipes the floor with Suchet, and establishes tremendous rapport with each of Algernon, Cicely and Gwendolyn. His sense of propriety is as well thought through as his jaunty naughtiness. It is easy for Jack to be dull, especially given Algernon’s propensity to shine because of the character’s eccentricities – but Benz takes the part and fashions it the way that suits him.

What is truly special about Benz and Cumbus is how, in retrospect, their performances from the start foreshadowed their true familial relationship. It’s subtle and clever, but really inspired. The similarities evident in all three Acts fall delicately into place when Prism reveals her secrets.

Here, Act Two, the only act in which there is no appearance by Suchet, is where Noble’s production reaches its true, giddy zenith. From Jack’s ludicrously sombre entrance in mourning wear, to Algernon literally eating the last of the muffins out of Jack’s hand, with all the idyllic, tempestuous fuss with Cicely and Gwendolyn for good measure, this is comic bliss that would have Oscar himself smiling and laughing.

Peter McKintosh’s costumes are deliciously detailed and bring the sense of the period, and the natures of the characters lustrously to light. Algernon’s exquisite dressing-gown, Jack’s splendid waistcoats, Cicely’s pale blue daywear, Gwendolyn’s perfectly fitting, sublimely gorgeous frocks and accoutrements – all are exactly right. The two outfits for Lady Bracknell look great too; it’s the way they were worn that diminishes them. The sets are suitably Wildean – there is really nothing to complain about in the design.

There is so much to like here. Some of the audience lapped up Suchet’s drag routine, but they have no idea what an opportunity has been missed. A fine female actor in the role in this production would have seen it be one for the record books probably. Suchet is fine if you don’t know what a joy Lady Bracknell can be. It’s enough to turn one’s hair quite gold from grief.

The Importance Of Being Earnest runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until November 7, 2015

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