The Importance of Being Earnest seems like the perfect summer production, with its witty dialogue and fast-paced, summer house-based action. Oscar Wilde's iconic play tells the story of Jack, who wishes to marry Gwendolen. Complications arise from the existence of Ernest, an entirely fictitious brother that Jack has set up, one that has allowed him a fun escape but now threatens to be exposed.
There is the grain of an idea to the Watermill Theatre's new production, with contemporary trappings clashing with costumes from the play's era. It works well with the heightened nature of The Importance of Being Earnest, even if at times it threatens to jar with proceedings. The sight of the play's characters decked in fabulous late Victorian dresses sat on modern metal garden chairs is certainly a distinctive one. There is an artifice here that is as interesting as it is distracting, with a set from Amy Jane Cook that is admirably minimal, hiding a wealth of well-used doors in a simple set.
The production elevates the role of Morgan Philpott's butler, who becomes an ever-present figure, wringing several hearty laughs with his unspoken appearances with an expertly timed prop or withering expression. In fact, director Kate Budgen's production is at its best when it keeps its pace up, propelling itself forward as a camp farcical hoot. For much of the proceedings it moves at a fabulous speed, giving the evening a sprightly energy.
There are a number of strong performances in the show. I particularly enjoyed Charlotte Beaumont's slightly bonkers turn as Cecily, bringing a comedic intensity to the part that had a terrific impact. Peter Bray's Algernon is a wonderful ball of energy, with a satisfyingly effeminate interpretation of the amiable scoundrel. And as the central couple Claudia Jolly and Benedict Salter make a likeable duo, with a palpable chemistry. The entire ensemble is skilled, devouring Wilde's text, and once again show the Watermill's knack for casting productions with a deep well of talent. Surely this is one of the best theatres to see talented performers tread the intimate performing space.
The Watermill Theatre go from strength to strength, adding this fast-paced, terrifically cast production to their growing roster of hit shows. Kate Budgen's interpretation of the text is a fascinating one, making this take on The Importance of Being Earnest one that often satisfies but always enthralls, with a game ensemble that appear to be having the most fun with Wilde's rich, witty text.