Theatre: Production fit for a queen (mum)

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST THEATRE ROYAL, LONDON
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The Independent Culture
THE WEST End transfer of this Chichester production of The Importance of Being Earnest received a rare piece of positive publicity last Wednesday when it was attended by royalty, having being picked as the theatrical entertainment to round off the Queen Mother's 99th-birthday celebrations. Did the Queen Mum have to swallow a secret disappointment that she wasn't whisked to Saturday Night Fever or The Backroom at the Bush? Were there earphones concealed in the Royal coiffure so that she could play her favourite tracks from the score of Rent if the going got boring?

I think it's safe to say that, whatever Her Majesty's frame of mind at the start, she will have been utterly seduced by Christopher Morahan's delightful production. It's a refreshingly "straight" account of this incomparable comedy. The subversive subtext is allowed to gleam through the poised, dextrous delivery of Wilde's artificial wit, instead of being "outed" and dumped on the stage in the shape of ostentatiously decadent trappings like the hookahs and oriental cushions that perved up Algernon's flat in one version or by the reinvention of Lady Bracknell as a drag turn.

It's also a production in which youth scampers away with the honours. From the moment she enters with an indomitable glint in her eye and the announcement that she intends "to develop in many directions", Saskia Wickham's wittily redoubtable Gwendolen lets you see that Jack is underestimating badly when he wonders whether this heavenly creature may, "in about 150 years", become like Lady B, her mother. She'll have completed the transformation and exceeded her in a year, tops.

Attired in an outfit drolly reminiscent of the armour-plated maternal style, this Gwendolen surveys Jack's manor-house garden with lemon-flower smiles and lethal disapproval, as though nature constituted an unforgivable social solecism, and she thinks nothing of skewering roses with the tip of a disdainful parasol. In the great genteel bitching-contest with Cecily, Wickham is given a real run for her money by the splendid Rebecca Johnson who, in her engaging show of girlish sugariness, is every bit as sweet as strychnine. The young men - Alan Cox's pert, puppyish Algernon playing beautifully off Adam Godley's very funny Jack, who is like some leggy lugubrious waterbird - are a match for the female pair. Godley has a smart line in understated physical comedy - little sudden gestures, such as his seizing a croquet mallet, like some would-be dashing duellist, when confronted with Algernon's treachery in the country - which deliciously emphasise his hapless ineffectuality.

So upholstered that she resembles a piece of overstuffed mobile furniture, Patricia Routledge is a rather subdued but generally persuasive Lady Bracknell. Her forte is for what middle-aged fans of Coronation Street will recognise as the "Annie Walker gambit". This involves clamping the eyelids shut and averting the cheek, as if struck, in a majestically martyred manner that suggests a soul too refined for the sordid traffic of the world. Routledge's stone-faced Bracknell works some hilarious variations on this trick, as she perfectly paces the dowager's mounting horror at the gradual disclosure of Jack's unacceptable origins. Sovereign fun, as I'm sure royalty would agree.

To 13 Nov, 0171-930 8800)

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