Chichester Festival Theatre
Opened 18 May, 1999

One of the more overlooked lines in The Importance Of Being Earnest is Lady Bracknell's passing remark that she had no fortune whatever before she married; she may, in other words, have been herself guilty of exactly the arrivisme of which she implicitly accuses the handbag-foundling Jack Worthing. It is natural, then, that sooner or later this patrician forerunner of Hyacinth Bucket should be played by Patricia Routledge. However, Routledge does not simply trade on her best-known television character. Her Lady Bracknell has none of Mrs Bucket's underlying insecurity, but nor is she utterly glacial; her genteel poise cracks only towards the end of her interview with Jack, when she positively growls the line about "marry[ing] into a cloak-room, and form[ing] an alliance with a parcel".

Director Christopher Morahan resists the urge to veer into high camp. Alan Cox gives his delightfully playful (and permed) Algy a succession of nicely florid instants, and Sheila Reid makes rather more blatant and less consistently successful use of her tremendously expressive middle-aged-pixie face as Miss Prism (augmented by an appropriately prim Morningside accent), often accidentally killing what should be her biggest laughs. But otherwise the knowing frivolities are reined well in; even Jonathan Cecil, one of the great "toffs" of stage and screen, plays a relatively straight bat as Dr. Chasuble.

Indeed, at times it almost seems too languid. Adam Godley is cast to perfection as Jack, exuding the weary hauteur of a young Peter O'Toole, but never really hints at the vivacity which has led Jack to create a fictitious younger brother in order to come up to town. Similarly, Saskia Wickham's Gwendolen has a rather restrained first act. She blossoms wonderfully, however, for what should always be the highlight of the play Gwendolen's little "chat" with Cecily. Even the manipulative little-girl innocence of Rebecca Johnson's Cecily is no match for Wickham's comically fearsome crocodile smile on lines such as "I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade." No surprise, then, that after this, Gwendolen's question "You will call me sister, will you not?" draws far louder and more appreciative laughter than usual. (Applause, too, for John A. Leonard's magnificent sound design as it suggested Jack clattering all over the house in search of the handbag.) Overall, although it often seems to miss the bull's-eye by a frustrating few inches, Morahan's production is more than solid enough to escape the perils of jaded so-whattery.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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