REVIEW: The Importance of Being Earnest (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, October 4)

Oscar Wilde once said, “I love acting. It is so much more real than life.” It would be interesting to know what he made of a new production of his classic The Importance of Being Earnest in which a bunch of ageing amateur ham actors decide you are never too old to be young, and past theatrical glories need to be revisited.

In this entertaining new production, directed by Lucy Bailey, “real life” forces its way into the production again and again, creating an intriguing blend of Acorn Antiques, Noises Off, The Play That Goes Wrong and – fortunately – Wilde’s superb original.

Bordering dangerously close to, but just about on the right side, of self-indulgence this is an interesting, if not always hilarious, take on a theatrical gem. Simon Brett has written some additional material for this production, in which the Bunbury Players decide to stage Importance as they have regularly through the years, with the old stalwart company members playing the roles they always have.

That framework is rather fun, though the characters and situations built up so promisingly are all too quickly forgotten as the play runs its course. Quite why a full dress and technical rehearsal is being held in the large country house home of one of the company is not explained, but William Dudley’s set is certainly lavish and effective.

Martin Jarvis and Nigel Havers originally played Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff in a National Theatre production of this play back in 1982 and their experience and familiarity with the piece shows. Both have a definite twinkle in their eye as they revel in revisiting the roles all these years later, though – as with all the subplots in the framing device – it would have been rather nice to have explored Havers’ caddish amateur actor persona more.

Cherie Lunghi as Gwendolen and Christine Kavanagh as Cecily are in full mischievous mode as they flitter around full of girlish jealousy and a shared sense of betrayal at the actions of their suitors; Rosalind Ayres is a delight as the Bunbury Players’ hard-pressed costume queen and the prim and proper Miss Prism; the decision to make the excellent Niall Buggy’s Canon Chasuble the creation of a drunken amateur player doesn’t work at all, and the idea is quickly evaporated.

Soaring above all is Siân Phillips’ extraordinary performance as the domineering and snobbish Lady Bracknell, capturing all the nuances of the character without ever descending into cliché. It’s one of those theatrical delights that surely deserves some kind of award when glittering prizes are given out at the end of the year.

Wilde might well have felt that his perfect comedy didn’t need any “reimagining” at all and maybe he would have thought that the ‘reality’ of the original was quite sufficient. But there’s enough to engage and entertain even if the conceit doesn’t always work. And, when all is said and done, age is surely no barrier in the first place when veterans can deliver the goods so admirably.