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Quentin Letts reviews Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest 

The Importance Of Being Earnest

Vaudeville Theatre

Verdict: Great play, silly direction

Producers love Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest because it sells plenty of tickets. Directors are warier of the play, simply because it is so well known.

How to make it different? How to escape the tyranny of those celebrated aphorisms and the dreaded ‘handbag’ line? In short, how to achieve intention numero uno, which is to assert the director’s view?

The West End’s latest ‘Earnest’, fourth and final part of an honourable year of Wilde under the Vaudeville’s proscenium arch, is done at a canter in luscious costumes.

There is more innuendo than you normally find in Victorian revivals. Wilde’s wit emerges intact, but director Michael Fentiman nearly wrecks it.

 

There is more innuendo than you normally find in Victorian revivals, says Quentin Letts. Pictured: Fehinti Balogun as Algernon (left) and Sophie Thompson as Lady Bracknell (right)

The opening tableau shows us London bachelor Algernon Moncrieffe playing a piano with apparent rapture while being kissed by a beau in a bowler hat. There is quite a bit more male kissing, and on the wall is a copy of Thomas Eakins’s oil painting, Wrestlers.

Algie (Fehinti Balogun, who needs to work on vocal variety) kisses not only his butler Lane (Geoffrey Freshwater, looking slightly embarrassed), but also his friend Jack Worthing (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd). Algie and Jack also do some nose-rubbing. Given later plot developments, I suppose this takes us towards incest territory. Crumbs.

Happily, Wilde’s brilliantly taut script intervenes and the story gathers momentum.

Lady Bracknell arrives, played quite young by a possibly over-energetic Sophie Thompson. Pippa Nixon’s Gwendolen, likewise, is an unsubtle interpretation.

Late 19th-century sexual repression is abandoned. We have flared nostrils and much rubbing of the lower quarters.

When Gwendolen talks of her ‘vibrations’, it is usual to allow the audience to enjoy the joke at her puzzled expense. Here she says the word with such lubriciousness, it almost deserves a parp of saxophone.

Director Fentiman’s approach at least prevents the entertainment becoming stuffy, but he pushes the coarseness about 20 per cent too far, not least when the characters repeatedly stuff sandwiches into one another’s mouths. Truly horrid. Artistic director Dominic Dromgoole should put a stop to that particular detail at once.

Much of the rest of the show is congenial. Fiona Button is fresh as Cecily, a more artful minx, and Stella Gonet’s Miss Prism likewise prospers without any clumsy gurning.

Algie’s ‘I hate to seem inquisitive .. .’ when he is desperate to know his late father’s name is choicely done, but late on we have to endure another director’s signal with a kiss between two housemaids and a butch young gardener.

‘Earnest’ is a pretty bullet-proof play and its virtues shine. I enjoyed the show. But if you want a thoughtful take on poor, brave, put-upon Oscar, you would do better to catch Rupert Everett’s fine new film, The Happy Prince.

Edinburgh highlights

What Girls Are Made Of (Traverse Theatre)

 

Show What Girls Are Made Of stars Cora Bissett (pictured) and tells a story of rock ‘n’ roll redemption

Girl Power is the order of the day in Edinburgh this year, and the Traverse Theatre’s contribution to the cause, What Girls Are Made Of, is a sweetly sentimental tale of rock ‘n’ roll redemption.

Written and performed by Cora Bissett, it tells how, as a teenager in the early Nineties, she went from small town Fife to touring with heavyweights Radiohead and Blur.

Living the dream didn’t last long. She got torpedoed by a bad review in the NME, and then discovered she was being ripped off by her manager. Her record company cut her loose, and her life went into free fall.

What makes Bissett’s story engaging is her disarming openness. Youthful errors, professional humiliation, guilt at letting down her parents. We can all relate to that.

The Fishermen (Assembly George Square)

A magical story, based on Chigozie Obioma’s novel, about two brothers in Nigeria who are reunited after years apart. One escaped to Canada. The other stayed home, working as a fisherman.

A snaking line of scaffolding poles set in sandbags serves as walls and fences around Lagos, as well as reeds on the river where the boys fish.

Gbolahan Obisesan’s adaptation draws us into the hopes and fears of the brothers, played by Michael Ajao and Valentine Olukoga. Slickly choreographed movement turns them into a flipping fish landed on the riverbank, or a desperate chicken evading slaughter in the dusty earth. It’s a world that’s as moving as it is spellbinding.

Trump Lear (Bunker One, Pleasance Courtyard)

 

As well as impersonating Trump, David Carl (pictured) impersonates George W. Bush in this surreal show

A surreal, grotesque send-up of The Donald by brilliant American impersonator David Carl. Carl’s shtick is that he’s been kidnapped by the President and made to perform his spoof of Trump playing Shakespeare’s King Lear . . . under pain of death by drone strike. In addition to Trump, he also does impersonations of George W. Bush as the play’s evil bastard Edmund, Ronald Reagan as loyal servant Kent and George Bush Senior as Gloucester. The Trump sons run out as Beavis and Butthead.

‘Sad’, but funny.

Brexit (Pleasance Beyond, Pleasance Courtyard)

At last, a satire that pinpoints the deadlock of mutual loathing that is modern British politics.

Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky’s Westminster comedy is set in 2020, with an embattled new Tory PM still looking for a deal with the EU.

He appoints a pompous Brexit popinjay (imagine a camp Rhys Mogg) as Trade Secretary and a militant female Remainer as Brexit minister.

But can he survive without his manipulative press secretary? And can he ever accept the glamorous German chancellor’s offer to welcome the UK back into Europe with no rebate, no veto and — horror of horrors — monetary union?

Khan and Salinsky could have got more mileage out of the plot but there are some great one liners, including a call for ‘frenetic inertia’. And as a snapshot of the political sauna we find ourselves stewing in, it’s wonderfully sweaty.

Hal Cruttenden’s hard-core Brexiteer is a pompous twit who alienates everyone, while Pippa Evans, as the sneering remoaner, is a tough cookie who’s prepared to join forces with him to bring down the government.

Mike McShane’s press secretary, meanwhile, is a gruffly disinterested American, turning his back on the whole fiasco.

The most sympathetic character is Jo Caulfield’s German Chancellor, who makes national humiliation seem like a merciful release. Almost.

But it’s Timothy Bentinck’s PM, drinking deep from the poisoned chalice, who amuses most. Bentinck (best known for playing David Archer in the BBC’s long-running radio soap opera) is despised for beliefs he tries not to have, and condemned for actions he’s trying not to take.

A hilariously pessimistic vision of a UK where everyone is set to lose. Which, really, is a very British outlook.

                                                                                                                                  Patrick Marmion

 

Grand Summer Spectacular & Water Show

Great Yarnmouth Hippodrome

Verdict: Well worth a dip

Great Yarmouth Hippodrome is the last circus theatre in Britain, and it was packing in the holidaymakers this Wednesday matinee, just as it has been most seasons since 1903.

Its two-hour summer show mixes traditional circus thrills with some delightfully splashy aquatics. The building’s Edwardian engineering having been restored a few years ago, a few turns of understage cogs transform the stage ring into a blue pool big enough for a troupe of balletic bathing belles in flapper-style swimming costumes.

The Hippodrome is run by the Jay family, long part of Yarmouth. Sometime Sixties rocker Peter Jay (Peter Jay And The Jaywalkers — they once shared a bill with the Stones) is slowly handing over to his sons. Ben Jay does technical stuff and Jack Jay is ringmaster, engaging in banter with funny-man Johnny Mac.

 

Great Yarmouth Hippodrome is the last circus theatre in Britain. The two-hour show mixes traditional circus thrills with some delightfully splashy aquatics

One of the Hippodrome’s cast, Australian balancing-man Sascha Williams, made it to this year’s semi-final of Britain’s Got Talent and he is here for the summer, wobbling on top of a crazy series of cylinders. Blindfolded. While playing a guitar. And that’s before they set fire to it all.

Add pyjama’d Canadian hunk Eric McGill on a swinging trapeze and Mexican juggler Roberto Carlos, who pops orange ping-pong balls out of his mouth, and you have a decent enough circus. But then comes Brazilian act Dupla Mao Na Roda, a muscular duo, one of whom has severely limited strength in his legs.

He slides himself out of his wheelchair and is soon raising himself aloft on his companion’s outstretched hand — and later on top of the bloke’s head. More than a feat of strength, this grabs your emotions.

The Flying Aces quintet do good stuff from the rafters and an engaging comedy routine on a trampoline.

Meanwhile, any feminist qualms about the short-skirted chorus beauties are allayed with a synchronised display on the double bars by three beefy lads from Kiev, the bare-chested Team Romanovskyi.

A party of 40-something women in the front rows were soon fanning themselves — and not because of the heat.

Best fun I’ve had for weeks.

The Importance Of Being Earnest will be screened live in cinemas nationwide on Tuesday, October 9. Visit oscarwildecinema.com

Be upstanding for the stand-ups

Olaf Falafel: There’s No I In Idiot (Pear Tree, West Nicholson Street)

 

Expect audience participation in this Olaf Falafel (pictured) show

Olaf Falafel claims to hail from a long line of Conga dancers and self-identifies as a cross between Charles Darwin and Pablo Picasso. His yarns of self-deprecation include playing Jenga with old people (stacked on top of each other) and he has running gags about funerals of famous people (the inventor of dishwashers, Tupperware etc), alongside audience character analysis based on their favourite biscuits. Never edgy or confrontational, he has the audience perform a Mexican wave with corkscrews and weaves an impressively silly yarn about being rescued by dolphins as a child.

Simon Evans: Genius 2.0 (Assembly, George Square)

 

Best known for Radio Four’s News Quiz, Evans stars in his own stand-up show Simon Evans: Genius 2.0

Simon Evans is best known for Radio Four’s News Quiz, but his stand-up act is more like Just A Minute — 60 times over. For a full hour he laments the intellectual poverty of public life, without hesitation, repetition, deviation or even drawing breath. He runs from the dismal qualifications of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, to Finding Nemo and gender fluidity in clown fish, to a compare and contrast of the Guinness Book of Records today versus 1974. It’s an unstoppable flow marrying hard fact with delightful nonsense. Brilliant.

Lucy Pearman: Fruit Loop (Monkey Barrel Comedy, Blair Street)

There may never be a more bonkers show in Edinburgh than Lucy Pearman’s Fruit Loop. Launching herself on her tiny underground venue, to the strains of La Bamba, dressed as a bunch of grapes and sporting a handlebar moustache, she co-opts the audience in multiple roles, including an earthworm glove puppet who is menaced by a villainous bird. Later, she appears as a high maintenance potato in need of grooming, and an ambitious but rotting apple singing Edith Piaf. Brilliantly deranged, it’s like a low-budget children’s show that’s gone off the deep end into flamboyant psychosis.

Adam Rowe: Undeniable (Just The Tonic, Cowgate)

 

Most of Adam Rowe’s set involves boorish gags about girlfriends. But there’s a good run on vegans

Adam Rowe is a stout, potty-mouth Scouser: imagine Ian Bishop crossed with Harry Secombe’s evil twin. He makes much of his council estate background and has a funny routine about his lazy eye being surgically augmented with thigh muscle. Most of his set involves boorish gags about girlfriends. But there’s a good run on vegans (he agrees with them but prefers chicken nuggets to moral rectitude). Walking the stand-up’s over-familiar line of giving offence, he can be clever, too, including a quip about how alcoholics borrow happiness from tomorrow. He has ambitions to fill stadiums. He may well succeed.

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