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THEATRE : Outing Earnest

Importance of Being Earnest On tour
"All women dress like their mothers, that is their tragedy. No man ever does. That is his." So declared Alan Bennett, dressed at the time as Lady Bracknell, in the Wildean pastiche sketch in Forty Years On.

There is a natural affinity between a drag act and the gorgon dowager of The Importance of Being Earnest. Just as Dame Edna manages simultaneously to stand for the most fortressed suburban bigotry and to produce outrageous cathartic anarchy, so Lady Bracknell delivers herself of some weirdly subversive opinions in the cadences of serene reactionary dogmatism.

The ambiguity of both characters is neatly highlighted by the gender- confusion of female impersonation.

Hinge and Brackett did it, so did Jonathan Hyde at the Glasgow Citizens; now donning the plumage is "Bette" Bourne in Nicholas Wright's intelligent, entertaining production for English Touring Theatre.

In so far as it is possible to give an understated performance as a drag- act Lady Bracknell, Bourne does. His long painted worm of a mouth reminds you of Dame Edna's, and could easily curl in her kind of cartoon disgust. Instead, it confines itself to some subtle crimping. And he clears that Becher's Brook of the role, the line "A handbag?", at a novel angle, annunciating it in the sceptical tones of someone trying to cope with a lunatic. In a way, his dignified Bracknell is less camp than Maggie Smith's was: he converts her not into a travesty "turn" but (pace Quentin Crisp) into one of the stately homos of England.

What "outing" is to the real world, "decoding" is to the world of plays, as you can see in the current sexually explicit Design for Living. Though it is full of cryptic campery, Importance does not allow for such systematic uncloseting. But the decadence of Algernon's dcor in Lucy Hall's set, not to say the overt queeniness of Charles Edwards's excellent Algernon, tip the wink that there may be more than one kind of double life that can be pursued by dint of "Bunburying".

The production achieves this without compromising the sunniness and blithe irresponsibility of this comic masterpiece.

n Tour details: 01270-501800

Paul Taylor