The Importance of Being Earnest. July 2015.

Dear Rowley,

No love lost between Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams as they slug it out to get into the finals at Wimbledon this year. But there is something amiss in the contest between ‘beauty and the beast’. Sharapova’s screeching – not dissimilar to an anguished  howl of a hen trying to lay a ruby ball – diminishes her undeniable elegance and grace on court. I was much more taken by the Aggi Radwanska semi against victorious and effervescent Miss Mugarutha whose name does her a disservice. She might be the heir to Evert.

What did you make of Princess Charlotte’s christening on the Sandringham estate? I looked at my watch and it was 1952. I felt like offering my best Dan Maskell ‘Oh I say!’ at the Duchess of Cambridge’s McQueen coat dress and Jane Taylor hat. Jane was just coming through as a major millinery talent when Miss P and I were calling the fashion for the BBC at Royal Ascot. Jane is now soaring as a great royal favourite and very well deserved it is too.

I was pondering the signs of the heirloom baby carriage, Prince George’s smocked knickerbocker outfit and the Norland Nanny on hand dressed like a cross between Miss Gulch and Mary Poppins. The service couldn’t have been more traditional if it was a Miss Marple adaptation. Easy to mock but actually I rather find it a positive sign of continuity and charm.

We’re reaching the business end of the Turnbull & Asser biography and were wrestling this week with the Chapter covering 1980 to 2000. It wasn’t working because I was using so many old film and TV stills from Death on the Nile, Brideshead Revisited and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that visually we were in another era with all those period costumes. We’ll get there. The art direction is the stage of a book I absolutely love.

Apropos T&A, I was looking back at royal photographs and came across one of the late Diana, Princess of Wales with the Princes William and Harry. The princes were wearing shirts and ties tailored by T&A’s head cutter Paul Cuss. We have a copy of the photograph in the archive inscribed by Diana ‘thank you for dressing my three boys’. The third was, of course, Prince Charles.

I couldn’t resist booking stalls tickets at the Vaudeville for yet another West End production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Can’t for the life of me remember my last Lady Bracknell but on this occasion the role was taken by David Suchet en travesti. As you know Lady Bracknell’s is the definitive but short scene-stealing role in arguably the most brilliant stage comedy in the English language.

Mr Wilde gave any actress who hustles Lady Bracknell’s bustle an absolute gift 0f a part. Dame Edith Evans’ Lady B in the 1952 film incredibly still looms large not least for her interpretation of the line ‘A heeeeeaaaandbaaaaaaag?’ looking down her pince nez like a sheep asleep as Kenneth Williams used to say. I think actors should admit Dame Edith nailed it and give the line everything she did.

The trick with Lady Bracknell is not to overplay the majestic frigate launching herself upon the ballrooms of Mayfair – diamond fender on her prow and a court train at her stern – wielding her list of eligible deb’s delights. Lady Bracknell reveals in Act 3 that she herself was not born to the purple. In Act 1 Lady Bracknell relishes her haute ton gossip with nephew Lord Algernon Moncrieff and clearly delights in the absurdities of London society as did Oscar Wilde. There is a glint in her eye not a sulphurous smell under her nostrils.

Did Mr Suchet, directed by Adrian Noble no less, pull it off? I would say he did and rather put me in mind of Dame Wendy Hiller as the Grand Duchess in Murder on the Orient Express (1974). As a comic performance Mr Suchet’s Lady Bracknell sailed perilously close to pantomime but was none the worse for that. Wilde’s play is beyond mannered and at times utterly, delightfully silly so we don’t expect method acting like Brando’s in On The Waterfront.

The hazard of producing a play as familiar to West End audiences as The Importance of Being Earnest is that everyone in the audience has seen it at least once previously and has a benchmark with which to judge the new cast. I haven’t seen a better Lady Bracknell than David Suchet in London. Equally skilled were the ladies Gwendolyn (Emily Barber) and Cecily (Imogen Doel). Cecily in particular is a pleasure to watch and listen to. Wilde gives her some of his sharpest barbs and Imogen Doel’s breathy faux naive voice delivers them with pure guilelessness.

I enjoyed the physicality of this Earnest. The boys Algie (Philip Cumbus) and Mr Worthing (Michael Benz) are fine physical comedic actors. Blonde bombshell Benz looks and sounds the part of an Albany beau but Cumbus less so. Occasionally their slapstick comedy defies credulity considering the social context of late Victorian aristocratic England but concessions must be made in the name of entertainment.

Though no one can surpass Margaret Rutherford as Miss Prism I do think Michelle Dotrice came rather close to the sublime. Her relationship with Dr Chasuble (Richard O’Callaghan) is endearing rather than played only as grotesque comedy of love in the autumn of life. In fact one suspects that Dr and Mrs Chasuble will be much the happiest couple of the three left standing at the end of the play.