A Rosy ‘Importance’!

Publicity Poster for Importance of Being EarnestThe Importance of Being EarnestRose Theatre, Kingston Upon Thames

Written over a hundred years ago, Oscar Wilde’s comedies remain popular. Last year, it was the turn of An Ideal Husband to grace the West End, alongside countless amateur, school and regional productions. And this year, within the last month, two productions of The Importance of Being Earnest have opened, at the Birmingham Rep and the Rose in Kingston Upon Thames. And if that’s not enough, Gyles Brandreth – erstwhile Tory MP, wit and raconteur of the One Show – has announced his intention to play Lady Bracknell, with his wife selecting the costumes.

Yet the Rose Theatre in Kingston Upon Thames sounds hardly enticing. It’s posh suburbia, south west London, nice, comfortable, and not exactly famed for its cutting edge art. And the theatre itself from the outside is at best utilitarian.  Inside, however, the Rose Theatre is a feast for the lover of all things theatrical. It’s remarkably hip – plenty of wood and exposed metal – and the stalls bar has a pleasing ambience, enhanced by the presence of a pianist, nicely setting the atmosphere for the trip into Victoriana which most productions of The Importance of Being Earnest end up being.

The house itself – theatrical speak for the theatre, darling – is beautifully modelled on a Renaissance theatre, ensuring that few seats are far from the stage, enhancing the actor-audience relationship, although from the Upper Circle (why are school groups always consigned to the crap seats?) the view can be a little steep. There’s a subtle scent of wood everywhere and there are some innovative design features. In place of the pit for the groundlings of Shakespeare’s day, this is rather more civilised: it’s all seated with those in the pit right in front of the stage able to hire a cushion as they sprawl on the floor.

The seats sweep right around the auditorium, in an octagonal shape. This is the stage area when bare.

Such a venue, however, is an unlikely place for a form of theatre associated with grand Victorian theatres, proscenium arches and velvet red curtains.  Yet it works remarkably well. Director Stephen Irwin’s production nods back to such traditions: in the first act, a fake proscenium arch frames the action, but Irwin makes use of the sight lines beautifully – as a an audience we are aware of the luxurious Persian carpets in Algernon’s home, and the much more minimalistic approach works well in the space.

This, too, is a production which more than nods to the subtext of the play and more modern interpretations of Wilde’s work, particularly in the representation of Algernon, who is played superbly by Bruce Mackinnon with an impeccable sense of comic timing, physicality and wit.  Algernon dominates the stage, with his childish (and I’d suggest downright selfish) behaviour peculiarly attractive despite its moral failings. His life, devoted to pleasure – fine dining, society, plays – and his scheming bunburying seem like a breath of fresh air when compared with the stuffy prudery of Lady Bracknell.

But it’s the comedy which triumphs. Sometimes, I almost cringe when I watch Wilde plays being performed – you wince as you know a supposedly ‘witty’ observation about marriage/ men/ women/ love/ money/ debt/ beauty / age is about to be made – but not this time. The really comic lines – ‘To lose one parent is unfortunate; to lose two is carelessness’ stands out – came across freshly and full of humour. Jack is charming and likeable and really quite a figure for sympathy, caught between Algernon, Lady Bracknell and his love for Gwendolen.  Indeed, I actually felt quite sorry for him as the facts of his childhood were revealed and Wilde cunningly swipes at the brutal class prejudice of late Victorian England. But Jack, too, is portrayed with an infectious level of energy.

In marketing terms, the star of the show is Jane Asher, a younger and more attractive Lady Bracknell than the norm,. For me, Cicely and Gwendolen were far more interesting, and often with a much greater sense of wit – the real humour of their characters shone through. Miss Prism, the repressed tutor with a dark secret, was impeccable, and the subplot of her love for the Rev Dr Chasuble added to the sense of festive comedy. By the end of the play, more than ever,  I was reminded of the end of a Shakespearean comedy, when all is resolved.

With so much to praise, it’s a real shame that the theatre was at least half empty on the Thursday night we saw the play. Considering most of the tosh on at Aylesbury’s Waterside Theatre – An Evening of Clairvoyance and endless third rate musicals spring to mind – I was glad to trawl around the M25, suffer a scarcely warm Panini in Costa Coffee and a late night. The Rose’s appalling website does not exactly help – apparently being redeveloped, visitors are required to flick through an online version of the current brochure which is far from user friendly.

Overall, I liked the choice of the two interval version of the play – it certainly stopped the usual pain of being asked to sit for far too long, though it did make the evening about twenty minutes longer than necessary. And a gripe about the onstage smoking. Actors: stop lighting a cigarette from a candle, taking two puffs and stubbing it out. Either smoke properly or not at all. And preferably the latter.

Don’t expect a ground breaking piece of theatre, and don’t expect a production which will give fresh insight into the human condition. Do expect an evening of gentle mirth (it never quite reaches hilarity), a beautifully costumed play, some wit and some farce, with perhaps just a little bit of love somehow triumphing and somewhere Wilde making some astute observations about Victorian society.