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Wilde's famously important alternative to pantomime

PUBLISHED: 14:04 30 December 2009 | UPDATED: 17:14 16 August 2010

Miles Eagling as John and Richard Unwin as Algernon in Galleon Theatre Company's The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wild. Directed by Bruce Jamieson. Produced by Alice de Sousa.

Miles Eagling as John and Richard Unwin as Algernon in Galleon Theatre Company's The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wild. Directed by Bruce Jamieson. Produced by Alice de Sousa.

(C) Robert Gooch

THE genius of Oscar Wilde is ably displayed in the current Greenwich Playhouse production of The Importance of Being Earnest, writes Mark Campbell.

THE genius of Oscar Wilde is ably displayed in the current Greenwich Playhouse production of The Importance of Being Earnest, writes Mark Campbell.

This comedy still comes across as being immensely clever and witty, despite some artistic tinkering on the part of director Bruce Jamison and producer Alice de Sousa.

Actually, 'tinkering' may be too negative a word. In bringing the story forward from the Victorian era into the Roaring Twenties, the comedy seems almost more effective than in Wilde's original.

It also affords the opportunity to have the cast decked out in marvellously chic 1920s costumes, courtesy of Thelma Ball and Jane Betton-Turner.

And with its frightful aunt figure (Lady "A handbag!" Bracknell) and silly upper class bachelors Algy and Jack, Earnest's role as precursor to the works of PG Wodehouse is made more obvious than ever.

Strange then that the butlers Lane and Merriman have been omitted - with them, the 'Jeeves and Wooster effect' would have been complete. But it's a shorter, punchier and rather less class-based play without them, which was, I believe, the director's intention.

Richard Unwin plays Algernon as a deliciously Wildean fop, with Miles Eagling in full Bertie Wooster mode as his rather less imaginative friend Jack.

The latter's invention of a brother called 'Earnest' allows him to leave his dull country existence whenever he wishes, a fact seized upon and exploited by the cunning Algy.

When Algy turns up at Jack's country home as the supposedly dead Earnest in order to woo young Cecily (Laura Darrall), poor Jack has a lot of explaining to do. Not least to the sophisticated Gwendolen (Kirsten Hazel Smith) who believes she is the only one engaged to 'Earnest'.

Into this convoluted plot comes a third romantic pairing - the self-important Rev Chasuble (Barrie Wilmore) and the objection of his admiration, Cecily's dowdy governess Miss Prism (Maggie Daniels).

With their euphemism-laden small talk, theirs is chiefly a comic partnership, although Wilde does capture the wistfulness of falling in love at middle age.

The sole singleton in the play is Lady Bracknell, brilliantly played by Kath Perry. Not quite a villain, more a well-meaning dictator in a fur coat, Perry gives a charismatic and intelligent portrayal of this much-imitated character, wisely underplaying that infamous line and emphasising other, equally funny, ones. If you hate pantomimes, this Earnest is the ideal antidote.

* The Importance of Being Earnest runs at the Greenwich Playhouse until January 17. Tickets: 0208 858 9256.

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