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London Theatre Reviews

Penelope Keith and Harry Hadden-Paton/PH: Alastair Muir


By Michael Leech

Yet another revival of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. This one is okay, with a domineering Lady Bracknell, in the person of Penelope Keith. No surprises, but enjoyable.

What would Oscar have thought about his current popularity? For one thing, if alive now he would be rolling in royalties as yet another of his plays docks like a looming Queen Mary in the West End. This is the most famous one of course, and The Importance of Being Earnest, rather like the near contemporary operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, still racks it up at the box office. It is ever-funny and the new production, by that star director Peter Gill, is well dressed and set. (The stylish costuming by master William Dudley is a major attraction). It's come into the West End from a long UK tour.

It's the 1890's. As the old queen Victoria buried herself in bleak mourning in Balmoral, her playboy son Edward was virtually a king with no power, yet plenty of social eclat. In lively London, a city of extreme contrasts, rocking with vice and scandals. Here, life could be exotic, titillating and fun. There was a lot of that if you were not poor, so this essentially Edwardian comedy still resounds. Done well it sparkles and though the lines are well known, even famous (such as Lady Bracknell's 'A handbag?') it remains a joy to see and hear.

Lady Bracknell is a role actresses yearn for. Different every time, it's always interesting to see what a 'new girl' will do though- they don't always get to act as they wish: that great performer Pat Galloway was told in a Stratford, Ontario, production 'not to make them laugh'. It almost crushed her. You can sum up Penelope Keith's idea of LB from the photograph in the program. She challenges you to laugh at her, and of course you do. Lips knitted tightly into a disapproving moue she stares at you with the intensity of a bird of prey. With her ridiculous yet alarming pretensions, her Lady B is ever-aware of her social position, standing or seated her posture is erect, her dress immaculate. She is definitely in charge and is in no way the old virago - after all with a young daughter, Gwendolyn, (Daisy Haggard) she would have been around 40. Certainly not the antique crone of Edith Evans, marvelous though she was, trumpeting through her famous impersonation. This is an unsurprising LB, more dominating than original. But then Keith's acting here is as predictable as it always is in her many TV appearances. Maybe banal roles and the camera have crushed some of her subtlety and sensitivity.

It's a well paced production with no surprises, carefully if not excitingly cast. In fact you rather wish Gill had gone to town and been more eccentric in his choices: it's always rather chilling to see a casting person in a programme - does a good director need to have choices made for him or her? The male roles are OK and the two girls good, but the character parts could be much better. Basically it's a workmanlike production that slides along smoothly. If you have never seen the famed Anglo-Irish Wilde's comedies, you should enjoy this version of a remarkably evergreen one