The Importance of Being Earnest, Vaudeville Theatre, London


Bags of fun with Lady Penelope

There's an amusing theatrical anecdote told about a piquant mishap that occurred during a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest. In the scene where his character is grilled by Lady Bracknell, the actor playing Jack is alleged to have hopped forward in the script, with the result that the grande dame playing Wilde's formidable dowager was robbed of the opportunity of delivering one of the most famous lines in world drama.

During the interval, the poor actor edged with dread to the temperamental star's dressing room, only to be greeted with a warm embrace and a volley of amused gratitude that his error had relieved her of that terrible "handbag?" burden.

This story can't be true – the interview is so tightly written that even the most nerve-racked actor would be saved from jumping the gun – but its currency emphasises how, ever since Edith Evans's dragonish swoop on to the offending word in the well-known film version, the line has become the equivalent of Becher's Brook for any performer tackling Lady B.

So it's refreshing to discover that Penelope Keith, who plays the role now in Peter Gill's deliciously entertaining revival at the Vaudeville, solves the problem by elegantly refusing to make a big deal of it. I have heard all manner of variation on the line – from a Bracknell reduced to a silent, shocked mouthing of the word to a Bracknell who sounded as though she was humouring a lunatic. With Keith, whose performance is a delight in its exquisitely understated authority, the effect is of a sharply cocked eyebrow.

That's of a piece with a production that eschews attention-seeking novelty of interpretation in favour of a zestfully straightforward approach. And top of the list of the pleasures it affords is the hilariously poised aplomb with which the cast negotiate the epigrammatic challenges of Wilde's formal yet seditious dialogue. It's the blithe assurance with which these actors mimic the cadences of Establishment confidence that helps you hear the subversive content in much of what they say.

Keith's Lady B demonstrates her forcefulness by never needing to raise her voice. She may be likened by others to a Gorgon but she manages to be utterly implacable without wasting energy on behaving like a monster. Keith's superlative diction delectably indicates a woman who has become a total stranger to self-doubt. She's so used to being obeyed that she expects people to anticipate her bidding, as when she orders her daughter to sit down and impatiently declares that "Hesitation of any kind is a sign of mental decay in the young".

There's a wonderful tension between her supremely seamless impression of immemorial good breeding and the hints she throws out that she herself is arriviste who knows that, far from being God-given, rank is a system that can be worked by anyone with a strong enough instinct for impersonation and gold-digging: "When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed of allowing that to stand in my way."

Gill's handsomely designed production boasts a well-nigh ideal cast. Daisy Haggard's excellent Gwendolen, lisping, wide-eyed and toothily determined to the point of predatoriness, gives notice that she's a chip off her mother's indomitable block, while Rebecca Night's splendid Cecily wittily conveys the rebelliousness of spirit lurking beneath the creaminess of her decoy-like docility of manner, applying just the right pressure to the give-away details, such as the last word in the line: "His voice alone inspires one with absolute credulity."

William Ellis and Harry Hadden-Paton as, respectively, Algernon and Jack, are pitch-perfect in their winning accounts of spoilt, playful, sexually ambiguous scions of the idle rich. In a nicely perverse touch, Janet Henfrey as the belatedly exposed Miss Prism, hits notes that would not disgrace a conventionally conceived portrayal of her nemesis, Lady Bracknell.

By Paul Taylor

To 26 April (0844 847 1722)

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own