As Algernon enters the stage for the first time in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, he says of his own piano performance: “I don’t play accurately – any one can play accurately – but I play with wonderful expression.” If only this were true of the CADS production of Wilde’s popular farce. To give them credit, it does stay true to what we expect – a script abundant with triviality and word play, period costumes and some titters from the audience – and yet also veers from the wonderful expression needed to carry it into the realms of hilarity. It seems that the “farce of miscommunication”, has been somehow, in fact, miscommunicated.
The script has been considered as one of Wilde’s best: clever and witty as a charade of social expectations, displaying the interactions of frivolous and childish characters as they attempt to make serious decisions. And yet what Jess Landy and Sophie Gilbert have produced through a restaging of this old classic seems incredibly familiar – a predictable déjà vu moment for the average Wilde fan. It may be comforting in its familiarity, and yet we have still to see an innovative attempt at tackling The Importance of Being Earnest upon the Cambridge stage.
The attempt to set the mood with an authentic soundtrack of ragtime piano classics jars with the senses as someone offstage abruptly presses the stop button on the recording, forgetting how soothing and necessary a fade out can be. The stage is set in its typical lace and varnished wood, with the addition of a small trellis and a couple of potted plants to let the audience know when we have moved outdoors.
The cast, however, shows the potential for comedic success, even if they take their time: Louis Morris’s Jack and Adrian Gray’s Algernon begin quite statically, wary of the space on the stage and therefore spending too much time sat down or stood in the same spot. The change comes brilliantly as Jack and Algernon come to loggerheads in the second half, battling with their brains and brawn by using flower stalks as fencing foils, giving the scene a much needed energy and hilarity. Victoria Waddoups creates a perfectly silly Cecily, easily duped by Algernon’s confident tenacity, contrasting somewhat with Amy Reddington’s Gwendolen, who tends towards being not silly enough for Wilde’s farce. However, the real laughter is drawn by Rhianna Frost as the tempestuous Lady Bracknell, bringing the much needed comedic exaggeration to the stage, putting some of the other characters to shame in the process.
We may know where we are with this production – we haven’t moved too far from that same old tree – and yet there is more to be said for Wilde’s production than CADS allows it to say. The scenes of fencing with flowers and stealing and negotiating muffins give the audience a glimpse of the innovations to be had, and yet they come too few and far between to not feel a little disappointed at the lack of earnestness in this same old reproduction.