JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, for The Scotsman, 25.7.15.
3 stars ***
OSCAR WILDE was many things in his short, brilliant and scandalous life – playwright of genius, dazzling social wit, the most famous man ever to be prosecuted and imprisoned in England for his homosexuality; and also, like many thinking people of his time, something of a socialist. The Importance Of Being Earnest – first seen in London in 1894, and now revived in a lively, lavish, and slightly over-the-top production at Pitlochry Festival Theatre – is Wilde’s brightest, lightest and most perfect comedy, a frothy tale of budding romance between two strikingly camp young men, and two fiercely intelligent young women.
Yet it also contains his most famously lethal portrait of the upper classes protecting their own interests at all costs, in the shape of the terrifying Lady Bracknell, whose governing passion is to marry off her younger relatives to partners who combine social acceptability with loads of money. And it’s striking to note how, in a new age of trustafarian excess and stark inequality in the UK, the upper-class attitudes displayed here once again sound strangely familiar, as the characters chastise the lower orders for “showing a want of thrift” by having too many children – more than two, perhaps – and Lady Bracknell divulges, to ironic laughter from the audience, that her daughter Gwendolen has been attending lectures on “the influence of a permanent income on thought.”
Richard Baron’s new production is a bold, full-tilt account of the play that struggles, here and there, with problems of tone. Margaret Preece’s Lady Bracknell is memorably clear and witty, and Reece Richardson is just about right as the play’s pompous young hero Jack Worthing. Elsewhere, though, the performance style is often just a shade too much; Algernon is too exaggeratedly camp (as Baron strives to expose the play’s gay subtext), Canon Chasuble excessively doddery, and young Gwendolen so openly satirical that she seems to be sending the play up, rather than actually performing it.
And the point about Wilde is that all these minor imbalances have an effect on the momentum of the comedy; overall, this production is more gently amusing, than perfectly hilarious. The production values are impressive, though, and Ken Harrison’s sets and costumes as gorgeous as ever. And even in a production that sometimes fails to hit its stride in terms of comic rhythm, Wilde’s play remains a thing of inimitable brains and beauty; the sharpest of social satires, wrapped in the most perfect of gossamer-light romantic comedies.
In repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 16 October.