Monday, March 20

The Importance of Being Earnest – Cambridge Arts Theatre

The challenge of Oscar Wilde is not in the words but ensuring the performance does them justice. There were no such fears with director Denzel Westley-Sanderson’s laugh-out loud production which delights from the off.

As butler Lane (Valentine Hanson) prepares tea at the London home of dandy Algernon Moncrief (Abiola Owokoniran), the delicately balanced glasses cleverly hint at the challenges to come when his friend John Worthing (Justice Ritchie) arrives, explaining that when he tires of life in the country looking after his teenage ward, he escapes to enjoy the high life of the city under the guise of seeing his wayward brother, ‘Ernest’. Algernon, in turn, regales him with his exploits of escaping the city in reverse fashion. Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell (Daniel Jacob), arrives with her daughter, Gwendolen Fairfax (Adele James), to whom John wishes to become engaged, but can he meet Lady Bracknell’s exacting standards?

Switching to John’s country estate, his ward, Cecily Cardew (Phoebe Campbell), toys with her Governess, Miss Prism (Joanne Henry) whilst Dr Chasuble (Anita Reynolds) loiters. With butler Merriman (Hanson) much put upon, it’s one thing for John when Algernon turns up pretending to be his wayward brother ‘Ernest’ in order to woo the young ward, but when Gwendolen arrives with Lady Bracknell in hot pursuit, the fun really starts in a hilarious series of mistaken identities: will anyone learn the importance of being earnest?

There are deeper issues to this play which this production gives a distinct nod to such as sincerity versus cynicism; chastity versus desire; abstinence versus appetite; respectability versus honesty; and truth versus fiction, but at its heart it is a satirical swipe at dysfunctional families, class, gender and sexuality, and all the better for it.

Lily Arnold’s design, complemented by Zoe Spurr’s lighting and Beth Duke’s sound, perfectly evoked the period, and I particularly enjoyed the clever wall reveal of the opening scene. Set changes had been well thought through and took place seamlessly, all matched by the equally wonderful choreography and movement from Tinovimbanashe Sibanda and Tonye Scott-Obene.

Very much a play of pairs and contrasts, Ritchie’s impeccably upright yet compromised Worthing and Owokoniran’s delightfully comic Moncrief are like opposite sides of the same coin, whilst Henry’s Prism and Reynolds’ Dr Chasuble sensitively play out a ‘will they, won’t they’ routine.

Jacob takes his own alter-ego, Vinegar Strokes, to play Lady Bracknell with full aplomb whilst Hanson performed both butlers to hilarious effect with superb comic timing. James’ assured young lady and Campbell’s precocious Cecily were both well and truly calling the shots, and as they took aim at their respective targets, each took their character performance to a new level.

A truly talented cast performing one of my favourite plays, what’s not to like? I still can’t believe this is the professional debut for two of them!

For over eighty years, Cambridge Arts Theatre has been bringing world class performing arts to the city and region, and they have an exciting programme ahead, further details

ETT are a UK based international touring company who create theatre which interrogates and celebrates contemporary England and reflects the diversity of our nation, further details of the company

The Importance of being Earnest is currently touring the UK, further details of venues and tickets

Accompanying the tour is The Black Chronicles Exhibition in a Box, a pop-up photography display, showcasing studio portraits depicting sitters of African, Caribbean and South Asian descent during the Victorian era in Britain. The display is part of Black Chronicles – The Missing Chapter, further details

Reviewer: Mark Davoren

Reviewed: 24th September 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★