Review - The Importance of Being Earnest at Royal & Derngate, Northampton

The Importance of Being Earnest
The Importance of Being Earnest

A Victorian mother of the upper classes had certain expectations of her future son-in-law's background - and being found in a handbag as a baby was probably not high on the list.

This quirky scenario is the story at the heart of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, which is currently enjoying its latest staging at the Royal & Derngate.

And the play, which is now considered a classic piece of comedy, is certainly a barbed attack on the artifice and shallowness of marriage and relationships in the late 19th century - albeit dressed up as a witty and elegant farce.

Despite its fame, age and popularity, I have somehow never seen The Importance of Being Earnest performed on stage, but I welcomed the opportunity to approach a play without a great preconception of the characters.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Jack (known as Earnest when in town), is in love with the beautiful Gwendolen, but cannot convince her mother, Lady Bracknell, that he is a suitable suitor - particularly as the only thing he knows about his parentage is the type of handbag he was abandoned in.

Meanwhile, his friend Algernon (who takes on the name Earnest for his trip into the country) forms a relationship with Jack's 18-year-old ward, Cecily.

With so many Earnests, so many fiancées of Earnests and such a big parental mystery to uncover, the tale descends into an irreverent but always exquisitely articulated farce, with plenty of slapstick and physical comedy along the way.

Former Coronation Street and Duty Free star Gwen Taylor takes on the role of the fearsome Lady Bracknell and I thought she played the part with great charisma. I had heard it said by one critic that she brings too much warmth to the role, but I felt she created a very real character - someone who understands the reality of the world but is so forthright she believes she can bend all around her to do her bidding.

In a cast full of strong performances, another name worth mentioning is that of Louise Coulthard as Cecily Cardew, who prompted many laughs by emphasising the slightly manic side to a girl capable of completely fabricating a relationship via her diary.

Downton Abbey star Thomas Howes is also brilliant as the morally dubious Algernon, balanced perfectly by the calmer but equally duplicitous Jack (wittily played by Peter Sandys-Clarke).

For fans of traditional theatre done well, the play is a must-see, and a decent reflection of Wilde's laughter-packed work.

The Importance of Being Earnest will continue in Northampton until Saturday, May 12. Visit www.royalandderngate.co.uk to book tickets.