Gordon Stackhouse

The Importance of Being Earnest

26/02/20

Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh

We’re a little late to this because of conflicting dates in our calendar and, it must be said, that in the depths of a very chill February, Bedlam Theatre is not a venue for the faint-hearted. But, suitably wrapped up in layers of winter clothing, we soon discover that this is a production worth braving the elements for.

The Importance of Being Earnest is probably Oscar Wilde’s funniest play. It’s certainly his most quotable effort, fairly bristling with those witty, erudite one-liners that he’s justifiably acclaimed for. It marked the climax of his career – at the opening night in 1895, Wilde was presented with that infamous bouquet by the Marquess of Queensberry, and the rest is tragedy.

The play is, of course, mostly about the titular character, who is Jack in the city and Ernest in the country, largely because he’s an orphan who was discovered, as a baby, in the left luggage department of Victoria station. In a handbag. (A handbag?). He’s played here by Gordon Stackhouse, with just the right amount of angel-faced insouciance, delivering a deadpan double-act with his best friend, Algernon (Fergus Head – last seen by B&B in the thought-provoking, Education, Education, Education).

Ernest/Jack is wildly in love with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolyn (Aine Higgins), but must first convince her overbearing mother, Lady Bracknell (Ishbell McLachlan), that he has what it takes to be a suitable husband. Lady B is, of course, a gift for any actor and McLachlan makes the most of the opportunity, firing on all cylinders and portraying her as magnificently awful, with a voice that could stop a runaway ox in its stride.

Algernon meanwhile (who is also pretending to be Ernest – don’t ask) takes one look at Jack’s young ward, Cecily (Georgie Carey), and proposes marriage to her. How the ensuing complications are untangled is the stuff of wild(e) farce, and this jaunty three-act play virtually rockets along, coaxing much laughter from the audience along the way. It’s a student production, so the props are on the rickety side, but they’ve done wonders with what they’ve got (somebody please give these people a bigger budget!). I’m onside from the opening salvo of Smiths/Pulp/Beastie Boys tracks that precede the first act. A final scene where the cast dance gleefully along to Primal Scream’s Rocks is frankly an inspired touch.

I think Oscar would have approved.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney