ARTS

The Importance Of Being Earnest - Suchet and Dotrice David Suchet with Michele Dotrice: "The joy of watching first class English actors doing a first class farce at a blistering pace."
Photo: Tristram Kenton

The Importance Of Being Earnest
Vaudeville Theatre, London
Reviewed by American actor and expatriate, James Carroll Jordan

Last night I went to a play. The Importance of Being Earnest, at the Vaudeville on the Strand. A grand thing to do on a warm London evening. I was especially interested in the show because my old buddy from The Old Vic and Poirot was staring in it as Lady Bracknell. The incomparable David Suchet.

Having worked with David for a good six months on a Spacey-directed play called Complicit, I thought I knew his moves and tricks (in acting terms) quite well as we rehearsed and chatted a lot together as we built that show. I have never learned so much about acting as I did from that six months. Still it was with mixed feelings that I went to this show. Was I going to see a drag show? A pantomime dame turn? What?

I also have to interject here the fact that I had never seen the Importance of Being Earnest. Was I going to see what every Englishman loves to do? See a guy prance around in a frock and be outrageous? I didn’t know. When I told my theater partner Malcolm McKee (a well-known West End director/producer/performer) that I had never seen the show he was amazed and I could tell by his look that he thought he was partnering a philistine to the theater. He informed me he had seen it at least twelve times and also had played Algernon in his youth decades earlier. I have had to put up with Malcolm's scorn for years now. Let’s face it, I am a TV/film guy and not really a theater man unless there is no other choice. I do enjoy theater, but after six weeks, I always feel I have been there and done that.

Back to the review. I found myself thoroughly enjoying the banter between Algernon and Jack or John or rather Earnest. The two actors were charming, smooth and very efficient. One, Phillip Cumbus, reminded me of the swash of Robert Stevens in his heyday. The other, Michael Benz, was cast as a perfect opposite personality wise and together they worked Wilde’s magic perfectly. As did the two girls who played Cecelia (Imogene Doel) and Gwendolyn (Emily Barber). Those two high maintenance characters were acted to perfection. Doel was daffy and ditzy and Barber was perfectly over-bred and full of herself as a society girl. Both were equally charming. Of course being a farce, everyone is slightly connected to one another and there are various mad scenes of misunderstanding, outrage and fast thinking on the boy’s parts. All handled itwonderfully.

They set the show up well and happily after about twenty minutes, Lady Bracknell made her entrance. Pow! Suchet took over everything - the stage, the scene, and the audience. Now here I looked for all the flaws and clichés I was half expecting. I watched David’s performance closely at first, marking his choices and vocal techniques. To my great pleasure and not so much surprise, he played her magnificently with clear high placed diction and a wealth of innuendo that only David can throw in so smoothly. All was set up for the myriad one liners that make Oscar Wilde so charming and famous. In any case, Suchet was superb. When I worked with him at the Vic he used a flawless American accent. On Poirot he did that strange Belgian voice that he made so famous, and now in this, he really did sound like a woman. Albeit a battle-axe of a control freak who brooked no opposition at any time.

But soon I found myself forgetting to notice technique or choices (like when he did not use the usual "A Hand baaaaaagggg??" Delivery but chose a different way to do it). I was soon just wrapped up in the joy of watching first class English actors doing a first class farce at a blistering pace. At times the actors had a hard time coming in after laughs because they were so frequent and often went on far longer in places than one would expect.

I have to say I haven’t enjoyed a farce so much since I saw Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens do The Beaux' Stratagem at Olivier’s fledgling National Theatre in ’69.

There were other lovely character turns last night that left me quaking with laughter. Michele Dotrice who played Miss Prism was absolutely hysterical. Completely over the top, but this is a farce and over the top really works. If you do it like she did.

I highly recommend anyone, American or otherwise to go see it. It is well worth the price of admission. Plus the theater is air conditioned. A state it wasn’t in when I played there years ago.

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