A silent handbagging

The Importance of Being Earnest - Birmingham Rep

As the most famous two-word phrase in the English theatre approaches, every actress playing Lady Bracknell knows that we are, as Oscar Wilde puts it, hanging on her lips in a metaphorical sense. Barbara Leigh-Hunt, a darkly glittering figure in his fin de siecle fairyland, takes this hurdle well. Horror-struck by the news of Jack Worthing's origins, she mouths silently, "A handbag?"

Terry Hands's centenary production of The Importance of Being Earnest, drenched in diamond-bright sunshine, points up the farce's haut-Victorian features with surreal clarity. Mark Bailey gives Algernon a flat that looks like a carpet showroom, with Magritte-like cloudy blue skies not only on the walls but on the floor. Jack's country house has a garden of violent green with enormous bowers of severely disciplined roses.

The two would-be Ernests are somewhat longer in the tooth than is usually the case. Roger Allam's Jack resembles a suave and distinguished paterfamilias, successful in the world but out of his depth in a chaotic household. Allam's intensely masculine presence balances the dainty foolishness of the rest of the piece, just as his attempts to cling to any fleeting shred of reality are a hilarious counterpoint to the other characters' pursuit of fancy. One of the biggest laughs of the evening was his grave explanation that "Worthing is a place in Sussex". He does, though, persist in his odd habit of taking a step back and jerking his head up, as if following the progress of an invisible volleyball. Allam is well matched by Abigail Cruttenden's Gwendolen, a demurely domineering creature who shows much promise of growing up to be, as Jack fears, like her dragon mother.

Philip Franks's Algernon, on the other hand, is a rather faded flower, flouncing and flapping and squeezing himself with excitement. It seems unlikely that such an etiolated and wispy fellow would love a young girl more than his own reflection, but the emotion does curb his tendency to strike silly poses. As the object of his adoration, Jacqueline Defferary is not very convincing either, more Violet Elizabeth Bott than Cecily Cardew, romping about in puffed sleeves and a pinafore and scrunching her face into vole-like demonstrations of obstinacy.The quartet of indomitable females is completed by Rosalind Knight's astringent Miss Prism, who looks as if she will keep Patrick Godfrey's effusively fluffy Canon Chasuble on a very short lead.

As for Leigh-Hunt herself, she is a majestic, assured monster, except when she mugs (clutching her throat, for instance, at the mention of the French Revolution), or diminishes herself to a cartoon beast by laughing at her own jokes. This profoundly trivial comedy needs real dragons in imaginary gardens.

n At the Birmingham Repertory Theatre to 24 June (0121-236 4455), then moves to the Old Vic, London, from 7 July

Rhoda Koenig

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