Review: The Importance of Being Earnest

Isobel Maxwell 5 March 2020

Take a trip out to the exotic outskirts of Cambridge to see hats, handbags, cucumber sandwiches, and free wine during the interval. Sorry, intervals. Two opportunities for free wine.

It was Friday of week 7, and we were going to Homerton. That’s 37 minutes’ walk from a central college, so we turned up a bit late. I was informed by the friendly steward that there were no chairs left. I was a little surprised that the play had sold so well (37 Minutes Walk) but, after we had acquired some chairs, the play started and my surprise quickly faded.

Image credit: Lucy Green

Hoffman and Taylor make a convincing duo as Earnest and Algernon. Like all good comedy, Hoffman’s stoic Earnest was well contrasted with the mischievous Taylor as Algernon. The scenes trundled along, although at times the two stumbled in their desire to get out their lines. This meant a few of Wilde’s jokes were dropped and the audience’s laughter cut short, preventing the play from achieving a comfortable sense of pace. However, the pair more than made up for it with moments of brotherly physical comedy – Taylor bopping Hoffman on the head with a silver cigarette case made a memorable example.

Unfortunately, Devine seems to have made an odd choice with the sound design, irregularly underscoring scenes with very quiet classical music.  Perhaps, Wilde himself put it best: ‘If one plays good music, people don’t listen and if one plays bad music people don’t talk,’ – and if you play very quiet music, the reviewer wonders if the music is intentional or coming from another room somewhere in the building, which may have been true, I never decided. If so, my apologies – but I suppose that such is the challenge with studio performances.

Image credit: Hannah Collins

The production team generally have done a fabulous job of meeting the other challenges of studio performance. Heidi shows impressive panache as a set designer. Despite a relatively minimal black box set, she has succeeded in providing enough pieces to ground the play, without swamping the stage. Similarly, the costuming is generally brilliant. Perhaps this is unsurprising in a town where every other Sidgwick goer imitates a Victorian fop (with varying success) but Lady Bracknell’s costume in particular, complete with period-appropriate wig, is evidence of styling that goes beyond the average arts-student fare. Admittedly, Gwendolen’s dress may have made my eyes bleed. But the rest of the costumes were really very good.

Image credit: Lucy Green

Standouts from the cast include Jesi Bailey as Cecily, Curtis Trynka as Merriman the butler and James Macnab as the Reverend. A part that is usually simpering and bordering on misogynist, Bailey’s Cecily was more mischievous and knowing, and all the more successful for it. Likewise, the usually slightly forgettable Merriman and Reverend were a joy to watch. Merriman’s job was to announce the intervals (with their free wine). However, I would have been more than happy to put off the wine in favour of a couple more minutes of the achingly funny butler, whose characterisation is only comparable to Riff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Macnab’s Reverend was the precise opposite to Riff; boundingly energetic and gloriously camp, he was everything I’ve never realised a Reverend should be. I imagine if Wilde had been in attendance, he might have written the two a spin-off show. I would certainly attend the premier if so.

HATS’s performance of Wilde’s best known play is fun, funny, and well worth the journey out to Homerton.

3.5 stars