Review: ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ @ Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton

I wasn’t sure what to expect from any performance of Oscar Wilde’s comedy, let alone from a small-scale intimate venue such as the Arena. So when people say size isn’t everything, it’s evidently the case with the Arena, the London Classic Theatre company and, of course, the ‘trivial comedy for serious people’.

The set consisted of a series of chairs, some (ill used!) books, and the notorious tea trays that play out the social politics of the play. This meant all focus was on the actors, and to positive effect – this company was wonderful. I have to say, the show was stolen by the dual role of Merriman and Lane, the respective country and city butlers. His reactions exuded humour, and removed any element of him as functional when he moved props etc.

It makes all the difference in understanding the subtle nuances of Wilde’s wordplay when it’s acted, and in this case even the inbetween segments added to this. For instance, Lady Bracknell and Algernon’s conversation was utterly lost on me, because of the hilariously suggestive eating of bread and butter by Gwendolyn and Earnest. Likewise, Miss Prism’s response to Lady Bracknell was well-performed to understand that, actually, the events lie on the ‘tragedy averted’ notion of comedy.

It also showed a couple of pitfalls in Wilde’s play. Algernon was wonderfully enacted, yet in Act Three he was relatively silent, which was a massive loss in terms of the actor who was a key component in showing the ridiculousness of upper class society. Earnest was also a great actor, and I’d never thought of almost pitying Earnest before, yet things like him losing his cool with Algernon and chasing him around for his cigarette case showed him as a put-upon character.

Lady Bracknell was simultaneously terrifying and so superficial it was laughable. It was almost evolutionary, seeing her alongside Gwendolyn and Cecily, demonstrating the inherent insensibility of the class system. Gwendolyn and Cecily were particularly apt in showing this, especially with Cecily’s dependence on Gwendolyn’s judgments, leading to her small and slight victories in their heated exchange.

This is a touring production so, if you can, I urge you to give it a try. If nothing else, it still speaks volumes to today’s society (comments on education’s worth received a particularly large response from the audience!), and provides a good laugh in doing so.

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