There are plays within plays, quite famously Noises Off and more recently The Play That Goes Wrong and it may come as a surprise to some that the latest offering of the sort is a production of The Importance Of Being Earnest. When you consider the maturity of the cast it's perhaps quite apparent that this is no ordinary version. What you are in fact watching is a rehearsal of an amateur dramatics group, the Bunbury Players who have revived their production of 'The Importance' on many occasions over several decades.
To dismiss the premise immediately would be unfair, as there is considerable hilarity in the idea. For an obvious example, there's a thespian we all know who will at any opportunity utter the words "when I was at The National..." and this character is written in here - an early attempt at introducing theatrical stereotypes. Unfortunately this soon fizzles out as does the idea that the whole thing is a dress rehearsal in one of the company members' living room. The early mishaps of forgotten cucumber sandwiches and costumes that don't fit are never readdressed and the narrative from 'The Importance' starts to play through uninterrupted - finally. It's a shame however that it continues to take place in someone's living room and nothing is ever clear or distinct. As someone who's never seen The Importance Of Being Earnest, it becomes very frustrating trying to understand what's going on and when they're telling the story or being the amateurs 'out of character'.
Whereas Noises Off is funny because it's supposed to be the actual performance going wrong before an audience, the fact that this is a rehearsal makes the 'mistakes' less humorous - we expect them to happen and it's OK if they do... there's something entertaining about a disaster and unfortunately it never reaches such a level. Maybe this is one for those who have seen the straight version of the play and are able to make sense of jokes from an existing understanding.
It shouldn't be avoided for there are excellent redeeming features. The cast are superb and do there absolute best with the new concept. Sian Phillips is excellent as Lady Bracknell, delivering lines with perfect comic timing. Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis are responsible for a few hilarious outbreaks as they reprise the roles of Algernon and John Worthing that they both played in the 1982 National Theatre production alongside Dame Judi Dench. The set by William Dudley is stunningly beautiful, I'd happily live in it.
It's all just a little too incoherent and Jarvis' line "it's more Widow Twankey than Oscar Wilde" probably rings true for the production. It's very interesting and worth turning out for the fantastic cast line up. The questionable concept is one that divides the audience, some clearly adored it. Decide for yourself at Birmingham New Alexandra Theatre until Saturday 26 October. Tickets here.
Cast List: Rosalind Ayres, Niall Buggy, Patrick Godfrey, Nigel Havers, Martin Jarvis, Christine Kavanagh, Cherie Lunghu, Sian Phillips, Portia Booroff, Carole Dance, Hugh Osbourne.