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IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (article first published : 2001-04-5)

Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is still one of the funniest plays around. The manners from which it makes its comedy don't mean much any more - we are a century down the road and into a very different society - but Wilde's wit and genius are such that Lady Bracknell and the others still make us laugh.

Peter Mitchell's production is a traditional one with big, sumptuous sets complete with a semicircle of gilded shell-shaped footlights at the front of the stage. The cucumber sandwiches are elegant (though the muffins look a bit dubious) and the whole appearance is suitably late Victorian. Presumably because of complex set changes, the play is run with two intervals.

There was a hint of first night stiffness on Monday, and one or two of the cast were less than word perfect - always more of a problem when the lines are so much part of our language and idiom that the audience is aware of any slip - but once everyone is into their stride, that should not be a problem.

Vera Clare makes a fine Lady Bracknell, less abrasive and more self-aware than the 1952 Edith Evans film version which was so overpowering that it has made it difficult for subsequent actresses to come up with an alternative reading even half a century later. Clare does it excellently, putting her own stamp on the famous "handbag" exchange and giving Lady Bracknell something of a twinkle in her eye.

It is also fascinating to watch Clare Mortimer - who is outstanding throughout - turn Gwendolen into a figure who bears out the truth of Algy's remark that all women become like their mothers. The audience is left in no doubt that, a few years down the line, Ernest will need to watch out. Lady Bracknell's genes are not far below the surface of Gwendolen.

Mitchell's cast generally do a good job. Hazel Barnes is a nicely twitchy Miss Prism; Greg King and Olivia Borgen both lively as Ernest and Cecily; Nigel Kane a slightly subdued Chasuble and Marcus Henning and Don Jones a stately and much tried pair of butlers. Dean Roberts' bachelor high spirits as Algy tend to overbalance into a camp petulance which does not sit entirely comfortably with the rest of the performances but there is a great deal to enjoy, as ever, in this production of one of the classics of comic theatre. - Margaret von Klemperer

The Importance of Being Earnest runs at the Hexagon until Saturday. There are performances at 19h30 with shows at 14h00 and 18h00 on Saturday. Book at the theatre on (033) 260-5537. Margaret von Klemperer




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