Wednesday, December 6

The Importance of Being Earnest – Liverpool Playhouse

Avant-garde, adventurous, audacious – and yes, artificial, but brilliantly witty, Oscar Wilde lives on in this hugely entertaining production. The cast introduce themselves by waltzing on, immediately conveying the merry-go-round of their lives with ever changing tableaux of laughter and posturing, voguing almost, and dance, like a visual representation of those many scintillating one liners which accurately skewer so much of Society – then and now. Its trivialities and shallowness are wonderfully exposed.

This takes place chez Algernon, walls garnished with portraits, as well as frames which serve as portals and hatches, although strangely sparse when it comes to furniture, but for one elegant chaise longue (of course). We then move outside, into the garden of Ernest’s country pile, and finally, intriguingly, inside looking out at said garden, a very nice touch. Indeed, that description could be applied throughout with much to admire.

Like Oscar himself, you need keep your wits about you because there is such a lot going on; especially in the background; the devil, that of mischief, is in the minute details, And I won’t bore you (how could I?) with the story, which is so well known; all those wonderful comments are very familiar after all, greeted with recognition in the uproarious laughter from the audience. One particular delight is Valentine Hanson, who steals every scene as easily as a Fagin-trained pickpocket: quirky Merriman, employed by Algernon, and put-upon Lane, staggering about obeying Ernest’s orders – then flirting outrageously with Gwendolen. He has the audience in the palm of his hand, holding them tight with the slightest change of expression.

Photo: Mark Senior

After his antics, I confess, probably my favourite scene was the prolonged duel between Gwendolyn and Cecily, swivelling constantly between BFFs and sworn enemies after the assumption that they are both engaged to Ernest. Very difficult to choose between them but Adele James, just, just, has the edge over the passionate, naive Phoebe Campbell, with the former’s stylised grimaces and gestures, especially her emphatic pronunciations. And she’s feisty, to say the least, having the nerve to at least attempt to stand up to her mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell who, ironically, for all her withering observations, and she is not shown as comical after all, it’s hard not to brand Pantomime Dame although Daniel Jacob makes a valiant attempt to rise above this. Unfortunately, he is not quite a match for the rest of the cast who enunciate their lines with crystal clarity. Not that you can say, odd one out, since all the cast are as delightfully bizarre; one unusual take shines a light on the coming together of scatty governess, Miss Prism (Joanne Henry) and stern, somehow dusty and rather shabby member of the clergy, Dr Chasuble (Anita Reynolds).

Speaking of odd, the last couple as it were is the harassed, somewhat childish Ernest himself, played by the splendid Justice Ritchie and the incorrigible Algernon, a wholly delightful Abiola Owokoniran. Again, a hard choice but the latter has a smidgeon of an edge, inhabiting his role to perfection as the ultra-sophisticate, completely endearing despite his many, many flaws, of which, naturellment, he is either blithely ignorant or simply does not care about.

Well, manners maketh man, and woman, especially during Victorian times, which fortunately did not prevent Oscar Wilde from taking pot-shots, to be vulgar, at everyone and everything around him, including academia and religion. Dialogue, acting, staging and exquisite costumes, from dainty shoes to elegant hairstyles and hats, it’s all beautifully realised, and highly recommended. Tantrums notwithstanding, overall, a joyous show where everybody is having a thoroughly good time. And so will you.

Playing until 15th October,

Reviewer: Carole Baldock

Reviewed: 11th October 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★