The Importance of Being Earnest

Perth Theatre

Three stars

Until March 21


Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Three stars

Touring until March 28


Oscar Wilde is, surely, the greatest comic dramatist to write for the British stage since Shakespeare (although Wilde’s fellow Irishman Martin McDonagh runs him close for that accolade). Wilde’s final play, The Importance of Being Earnest, which was first staged, in London, in February 1895 (only a few short months before the persecuted writer was sent to prison), remains his most popular.

At the heart of Wilde’s exquisite caper are the antics of the blue blooded chaps Jack Worthing (aka “Earnest”) and Algernon Moncrieff, who cause all manner of mischief by “Bunburying” (i.e. escaping the town for the country by way of pretence). Lu Kemp’s new staging for Perth Theatre (which stars the much loved comedian and actor Karen Dunbar as the formidable aristocrat Lady Bracknell) imitates the play by having most of its five-strong cast take on multiple characters.

This theatrical Bunburying starts in, ahem, earnest when, at the beginning of Act 1, Daniel Cahill appears as both Lane (Algernon’s manservant) and Jack, in very short order. The fact that Wilde requires Lane and Jack to be in the room together for much of the act is sidestepped by means of the ingenious expedient of a speaking tube (which enables Algernon to communicate with the absent Lane while Cahill is on-stage playing Jack).

This initial character swapping is clever and funny. However, by the time Caroline Deyga (playing Lady Bracknell’s daughter, the fragrant Gwendolen Fairfax) doubles as the ill-fated teacher-cum-novelist Miss Prism and almost everyone takes their turn at playing the hapless Reverend Chasuble, the doubling and, indeed, tripling of roles becomes a distraction, rather than an amusement.

Which is a tremendous pity, as Kemp’s production boasts some fine acting, particularly from Dunbar (a knowingly arch Lady Bracknell) and Grant O’Rourke (a deliciously louche Algernon). Spare a thought for Dunbar, however, as she wrestles with one of the trickiest short lines in world drama.

The famous moment in which Lady Bracknell expresses her surprise and consternation at discovering Jack’s provenance (he was found, as an infant, abandoned in a piece of luggage at Victoria Station in London) will forever be associated with Edith Evans’s performance in Anthony Asquith’s 1952 film. Evans’s speaking of the words “a handbag!”, with unforgettably elongated vowels and equally memorable derision, challenges actors to either imitate or find a very different way of saying the legendary phrase.

Dunbar and Kemp have decided to go with a short, sharp, almost dismissive, and certainly anti-Evansian, speaking of the line. It’s an entirely understandable solution, but one which, like the plate of cucumber sandwiches (intended for Lady Bracknell) that Algernon demolishes early in the play, leaves one feeling unsatisfied.

Amy Kennedy is every inch the impatient, easily impressed, young Victorian lady as Jack’s teenage ward Cecily Cardew, while Deyga nails Gwendolen’s cultivated cynicism. Cahill certainly looks the part as Jack, a man of property, wealth, and very little else, but his playing lacks the necessary flexibility.

Jamie Vartan’s semi-minimalist, art deco-ish set proves sufficiently versatile. It’s just a shame that Kemp, in playing the piece with just five actors, undermines Wilde’s satire with a character swapping farce of her own. Oh, and the less said about the director’s ill-advised, blatantly populist musical closer (which trashes Wilde’s famous final line) the better.

If Perth’s Earnest disappoints, there are frustrations of a different kind in MAIM, a co-production between Glasgow-based Gàidhlig company Theatre Gu Leòr and music group Whyte. A piece concerned with “panic” (the best English translation of the Gàidhlig word “maim”), the work was co-written by its young, four-strong cast of stage performers Alasdair C. Whyte, Elspeth Turner and Evie Waddell, and composer/musician Ross Whyte.

Staged by Theatre Gu Leòr’s artistic director Muireann Kelly, and performed in Gàidhlig (with English supertitles), MAIM is constituted of a series of interconnected vignettes. Performed in spoken word, British Sign Language, music, song and movement (assisted by video projections by Lewis Den Hertog), it brings together the concerns among young people within the Gàidhealtachd for both their language and (in these times of climate crisis) the environmental future of the Highlands and Islands.

Poetic reflections on the landscape sit beside historical recollections going back decades and centuries. Anger at the failure of the Scottish Government to put ecology before profit where Donald Trump’s infamous Aberdeenshire golf resort was concerned connects with a heartfelt (if straightforwardly polemical) expression of support for the youth-led climate strike movement.

Moving and engaging though some of these scenes are, they never quite achieve a convincing totality. This is down partly to the unevenness in the writing, and partly to the weaknesses (in both conception and execution) of Jessica Kennedy’s choreography (think climate change addressed by way of interpretive dance).

The pity is that the piece, which enjoys fine music by Ross Whyte and subtle design by Jen McGinley, has immense heart and is, palpably, a work of genuine commitment. Sadly, however, that commitment doesn’t quite translate into a coherent stage work.

For tour dates for MAIM, visit: