Review: The Importance of Being Earnest at Cambridge Arts Theatre

Gwen Taylor and Louise Coulthard in The Importance of Being Earnest

Gwen Taylor and Louise Coulthard in The Importance of Being Earnest - Credit: Archant

On the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895 the story goes that the father of Oscar Wilde’s lover, Bosie, planned to disrupt the play by throwing rotten fruit. Wilde got wind of the plan and The Marquess of Queensbury was refused entrance to the theatre. If the playwright had seen this production by The Original Theatre Company, he might have welcomed him in.

Wilde’s wit needs to be delivered gently so we can savour it. It speaks for itself. The clue is in the title. The humour is in the characters’ being earnest. Played straight, the lines are funny. There is also a lot of truth in them. It is indecent for a woman to flirt with her own husband. It is true that those who criticise society are often those who can’t get into it. And women do call each other sister when they have called each other a lot of other things first.

Sadly, the cast here were over-acting to the point of clowning in their desperation to amuse. We didn’t need them to turn somersaults

Wilde is the master of the smiling put-down.

When the two young ladies who mistakenly believe they are both engaged to the same young man (because two different young men have both lied to say their name is Ernest), the more insulting the girls are to each other, the sweeter they need to be in tone. That’s what makes us laugh at them. Louise Coulthard as Cecily and Hannah Louise Howell as Gwendoline reduce this into a shrieking cat fight.

Similarly Thomas Howes as Algernon Moncrieff and Peter Sandys-Clark start yelling at each other in the second act. Wilde’s words are like a graceful tennis match volley you don’t need to get out machine guns.

I would say this is an ensemble piece, all the casting is equally unfortunate. There were some enjoyable moments, Gwen Taylor as Lady Bracknell was underpowered most of the time but made the line: “A handbag” her very own and Peter Sandys-Clarke’s performance was at times less frenetic than the rest.

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It’s always good to hear Oscar Wilde’s lines. When he said he had nothing to declare but his genius, he was right - but time would be better spent reading a copy of the play.

At Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, April 14.