The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde, was directed by Katie Lipsidge and Sue Grindlay, and was performed at the Edward Alleyn Theatre, Dulwich College in April 2012.

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Review by Mike Foster

Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest has become famous, not merely for being a clever skit on Victorian values, but delivering the short question: "A handbag?" Lady Bracknell asks it when she learns Jack Worthing, a would-be suitor to her daughter Gwendolen Fairfax, lacks breeding. Worse, he is an orphan. Far worse, he was found, as a baby, in a large handbag at Victoria Station - on the Brighton Line. When she played Lady Bracknell, Dame 

Edith Evans injected such surprise and scorn into the handbag phrase that it passed into legend. So Rebecca Dallaway, playing Lady Bracknell in the latest Dulwich Players was facing a tough challenge. She passed the test with flying colours by simply pausing for a lengthy period after discovering the awful fact. Half-smiling, she faced the audience, who eagerly anticipated the phrase. And when she delivered it, Worthing's hopes were utterly extinguished - dismissed in the same way a stern school mistress would dismiss an unruly class. The school mistress approach worked well for Rebecca throughout the production. She was a tough nut, for sure, but there was also an essential humanity in her performance. Towards the end, when she was facing a lonely life with an inadequate husband and without Gwendolen, I wondered whether I could feel sympathy for her. Thanks to Rebecca, I decided, quite possibly, yes. 

To recap, on the plot, such as it is: Jack Worthing is friendly with Algernon Moncrieff, Lady Bracknell's nephew. Both young men have invented sickly friends or relatives, to give them an excuse to slip away from their family responsibilities. Worthing has invented someone called Ernest. He adopts the name when in town, and Gwendolen, agrees to marry him because she likes the name so very much. Algernon decides to pretend to be Ernest and pay a surprise visit to Worthing in the country. And (wouldn't you know it?) Worthing's ward, Cecily, is also sufficiently in love with the name Ernest to marry him as well. Unlikely? It doesn't matter. Wilde's delightful language keeps the play spinning along, and the Dulwich Players production did not disappoint. On the contrary.

Congratulations for the production are due to co-directors Katie Lipsidge and Sue Grindlay: in my view, this was their best yet. All the characters have won their race, and they all deserve prizes. But special praise must go to James Brown, who played Algernon Moncrieff. Always lively, jumping up and down, rushing back and forth, his enthusiasm for the scrapes in which he continually found himself was undoubted. Perhaps he was a little too lively? It doesn't matter. He played the role exceptionally well and if I may say so, he had an impeccable taste in jackets. Michael Fife had a more challenging role as Jack Worthing, a more sober foil to the bumptious Moncrieff. His was a more diffident interpretation which allowed James to take the dominant role. Michael could have lifted his character a little more. But he played the role with conviction and character will out. Michael became the one for whom we rooted: a victim of circumstances, even if some of them were of his own making. The way Michael appeared on stage dressed in black - having "killed off" Ernest - only to be faced by James pretending to be the same was a joy. A moment of praise is due to the sound team when Michael disappeared off stage to look for his handbag, accompanied by truly convincing noises off. 

Louise Collins as Gwendolen freed herself nicely from the dominance of Lady Bracknell, and commanded events nicely in the second half. Jenny Roberts' role developed nicely. The duopoly between the two girls in the third act worked exceptionally well. Miss Prism, played by Lydia Dickie, was well executed: a tutor with a heart of gold. When Lydia dropped her books in the presence of Canon Chasuble (Bill Bailey) you knew she would get her man. Their entente developed well as a sub plot, with the two clearly affectionate towards the end, along with the other two sets of lovers. I must not forget Frank Ralfe, who is (I am sure) our most seasoned actor. He played the part of Lane, Montcrieff's butler, with a long-suffering but wise air, which was joy to behold. And Brian Green made an excellent debut as Merriman, butler to Worthing. His rolling of the eyes as Cecily put sugar in a cup of tea for Gwendolen's tea was a lovely touch. The young lad will go far, mark my words.