You’re not often given a surprise by Lane the butler in in his short appearance, as he delivers those immortally celebrated cucumber sandwiches to the piano-strumming young master Algernon. But when Algy has given him a couple of kisses, hand and lips, lit his cigarette for him and sat down matily beside his gentleman’s gentleman to listen to Jack, you think again. And you couldn’t choose better for Lane than Geoffrey Freshwater: a dubious, battered paternal figure, serving himself a sherry and maintaining a classic RSC deadpan expression on those senatorial features. Algernon may be about to pursue Cecily, but as marriage material…? Well, Oscar was, and loved his sons, so fair enough.
It has been a Wilde year, with Rupert Everett’s stunning film about the playwright’s last years and Dominic Dromgoole’s curated season at the Vaudeville: the last opening, An Ideal Husband, proving the crowning glory. It has been a treat. But this, Wilde’s epigrammatically nonsensical final squib , is the toughest task.
It is worth doing, though. It is almost an amoral parody of romantic comedy and has – if, like director Michael Fentiman, you look at it in the context of the author’s imminent downfall – a real whiff of sulphur round the edges. Unlike in Wilde’s more probable plots, here we do not wish or need to imagine the future marriages of the young characters, based as they are deliberately on whimsy. And so well known are the top lines – the diaries, the HANDBAG, the muffins, the Fall of the Rupee etc – that there have been times, for all the deployment of Denche or Suchet quality, that you wish The Importance could be given a rest for fifty years or so, to come up fresh. Indeed the last version I wholeheartedly enjoyed was Joanna Carrick’s, framed as the memory of an old butler and containing, among other joys, a unique sense of guilty sexual chemistry between Prism and Chasuble…
But never mind. Fentiman’s cast got unforced guffaws on even the most well- expected lines, despite an opening-night audience who must have known them. So there is a fair chance that a new generation coming to it will love it to bits. Sophie Thompson has just the edge of lunatic authority that one needs in Lady B, and Fiona Button is an absolutely glorious Cecily. Fehinti Balogun – on a West End debut – is the unnervingly sexually fluid Algernon, at first a little stilted but coming into his own in the second scene as he saunters, louche and irresistible in a tilted hat, into Cecily’s sheltered life. He eats muffins to perfection and is, by then, very funny.
Jacob Fortune-Lloyd is Jack, more conventionally the Woosterish man about town and a nice foil to his cleverer friend. And Fentiman’s grace-notes (heaps of tottering luggage, furious food-stuffing and diary-ripping, as well as the sexual ambiguities – keep the pace up. So yes, fun. Though I can’t think what Oscar’s audience would have said about Algy pinching Jack’s bum.
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