Theatre is all about the suspension of disbelief, but even so, it is stretching it a little when Martin Jarvis, a sprightly 72, declares his character to be 29. Indeed, all of Lucy Bailey’s cast are similarly mature. And why not? We’ve already had several septuagenarian Shakespearean lovers: now Bailey gives a seasoned cast – including Jarvis as Jack, Nigel Havers as Algernon, Cherie Lunghi as Gwendolen and Christine Kavanagh as Cecily – a run at Wilde’s consummate comedy.
It’s a great idea, but it needs an onstage raison d’être, so Bailey and writer Simon Brett have come up with a framework, turning the comedy proper into a play within a play. Here we are in a charming Arts and Crafts home (elegantly realised in William Dudley’s design), whose owner is a member of the Bunbury Players, an amateur dramatic group devoted to Wilde. The conceit is that they, though being a little long in the tooth, are about to perform The Importance of Being Earnest for the umpteenth time: what we are watching is their dress rehearsal.
It does come into its own towards the end, but to begin with this is a pretty laboured set-up. There’s some limp and fairly unfunny Noises Off style business with ill-timed sound-effects, vanishing props and ill-fitting costumes. “Real-life” issues, such as romantic entanglements, petty personal jealousies and alcoholic performers, are raised, but not entwined into the script, and you need sharper one-liners if you are going to match up to Oscar Wilde’s epigrams. You lose too the impact of the scintillating, but scathing mockery of the snobbery and hypocrisy of Victorian high society.
There are dividends, however: such as Siân Phillips, who is to be Lady Bracknell, quietly practising her intonation for the notorious “handbag” line. And once the production gets into its swing, the play takes over and you see the point: gradually the setting, the age of the actors and the extraneous carry-on melt away.
The set pieces are enjoyable, but most remarkable is the fact that you begin to root for the characters. By the final scene, with Phillips admirably conveying the calculating little mind behind Lady Bracknell’s stentorian pronouncements, and the two couples hanging on her decisions, Wilde’s comedy about double lives and pretence has allowed the actors (real and fictitious) to become foolish young lovers again – in short, to celebrate that suspension of disbelief. That is smart and delightful; it’s just a shame that the supporting framework isn’t sounder.