Bags of laughs;Reviews;Set plays

26th June 1998 at 01:00

Michael Friend beams. "It is so well thought out, nothing has been left to chance. It seems so spontaneous, but Wilde must have reworked so much."

He is talking about The Importance of Being Earnest which he is both directing and producing.

Oscar Wilde's play, in which Algy and Jack try to woo two girls who insist they will only have lovers called Ernest, is often regarded as an easy option. It may be an almost perfect play, overflowing with sparkling wit, but it is scarcely an easy option.

The director has to find a clever cast and an actress brave enough to lay the ghost of Edith Evans' famous portrayal of Lady Bracknell, the forbidding figure who must give her consent to one of the romantic attachments.

Cleverness is an essential prerequisite because there are so many ravishing lines and so many comic opportunities.

Friend's actors fairly bristle with intellectual eagerness, they relish every detail with joyful spirit and are rewarded with gales of laughter. There are no barren moments.

The play's opening scene, with debt-ridden Algy and Lane, his butler, shows how thoroughly the play has been investigated. There is a testy, resentful side to their relationship. Lane is furious because he has to provide alibis: Algy is furious because he has to rely on Lane's alibis.

Cheryl Kennedy's playing of Lady Bracknell has little of the dragon but she is an arch manipulator. The "a handbag!' exclamation is allowed to run by without the usual snorting delivery and the usual roar of appreciation from the audience. This Lady Bracknell is obviously newly-rich. she is obsessed with the rules of polite society, as any new entrant would be, and there is the lingering fear that someone will find her out.

How does Friend account for the play's continued popularity? "It's more than just entertainment," he says, "otherwise it wouldn't have lasted so well. Wilde is mocking attitudes in the same way that Joe Orton and other people turn things upside down.

"The main trick is that he takes a cliche phrase and completely reverses it. So you come face to face with it in a nonsensical form."

On tour until late July, details tel: 0l279 870474

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