Lucy Bailey’s reimagining of The Importance of Being Earnest at The Harold Pinter Theatre sees an am-dram company rehearsing a chaotic version of the titular play. The result is a terrible production about a terrible production of a brilliant play – an unfortunate irony that would probably have raised a wry smile from Wilde himself.
The premise is the ageing “Bunbury Company” are performing the play for the umpteenth time. Now approaching their twilight years, they continue to squeeze into the roles – and outfits – of Wilde’s youthful characters. The joke, for those in the know, is that there’s a flicker of truth to this: Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis (as Algernon and Mr Worthington, respectively) both reprise their roles from a National Theatre production of the play many, many moons past.
Unfortunately the “new” sections are bewilderingly badly written. Poorly-choreographed slapstick (usually involving a man with a ladder) rubs shoulders with over-cooked jokes about the dubious proclivities of the acting fraternity (“aren’t actors funny about food?”, “aren’t actors always having affairs?”).
It’s all so camp and hammy it ends up a kind of Carry On Being Earnest. Its cultural references have all the precision of a steamroller – a character stumbling across a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, for example, wouldn’t have been funny even if it were remotely topical.
The ham-fisted approach doesn’t stop even when Wilde’s play finally gets underway. The jokes aren’t just signposted, they have an obelisk erected over each one, lest anyone should threaten to miss one.
There’s an undeniable energy to the proceedings, not least when Siân Phillips is on stage as the tyrannical Lady Bracknell, and Jarvis brings some genuine cheer to his Mr Worthing. But the entire affair is nauseatingly self-satisfied; the actors are clearly enjoying themselves but at times it felt like they were the only ones.
There is little to recommend this production but if you must go, my sincere advice is stay in the theatre bar until after the latecomers point – missing the first 15 minutes will at least spare you some of the more crass additions to Wilde’s great play.