THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST at Bath Theatre Royal

David Suchet’s Lady Bracknell provided the icing on the cake during an impeccable performance and production of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Trivial Play for Serious People’. Played with intuitive chemistry between all players, and superbly directed by Adrian Noble this was a cracking version of the old tale. Suchet is quoted as saying “that after playing an extraordinary character like Hercule Poirot for so long, I always knew it would be a challenge to find another character as extraordinary to play. I also wanted comedy. Lady Bracknell is both.”

The Bath audience greeted Suchet’s entrance with warm applause. By the end they clapped long enough for repeated sweeps to the front of the stage with the entire cast and a final triumphant solo pose and flourish. A long run starting in London later this month at the Vaudeville Theatre looks likely.

Philip Cumbus (Algernon Moncrief) and Michael Benz (John (Jack) Worthing) set the ball rolling with energetic but well-paced portrayals of the two convivial but deceitful friends. Pretense will later become reality as their identities are muddied but finally resolved.

Act I of course contains the iconic “A handbag!” line delivered by Lady Bracknell as she delves into Jack’s background and suitability as a prospective husband to her daughter Gwendolen Fairfax (Emily Barber). Suchet chose more of a relaxed, amused delivery of the line, rather than emulate Edith Evans’ famous haughty tone. But Suchet brings sufficient gravitas to the role to set up a formidable obstacle to the would-be lovers. Barber shone throughout giving Gwendolen an effervescent coquettishness. Her later sparring with an animated Imogen Doel as Cecily Cardew was a delight. There were top performances too from Michele Dotrice as Mrs Prism and Richard O’Callaghan as the Rev Canon Chasuble.

Set and costume designer Peter McKintosh’s three beautifully detailed period tableaux seemed further enhanced by the Theatre Royal’s restored nineteenth century interior. Act II in particular – an immaculate garden scene at the Manor House, Woolton, which featured lawn, hedges, paving and stonework with a rear entrance revealing far hills and an optimistic blue sky was lovingly realised. His costume creations also reflected the attention to detail that pervaded the whole production. Suchet’s claret and silvery early Edwardian dress topped with an extravagantly decorated hat certainly helped him plough a new theatrical furrow.

Amongst the many Wilde-isms to enjoy I couldn’t help but warm to this one… Lady Bracknell: “I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.”

Highly recommended. ★★★★★   Simon Bishop   16/06/15