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Who the chuff is Earnest?

Who needs Love Island when you can have Oscar Wilde's 24-hr (Victorian) party people – a group with loose morals, bad manners and a low opinion of marriage.

Importance of Being Earnest cast watermill theatre Newbury

Is there anything worse than the morning after the Muddy mental night before? The kind where you wake up surrounded by dregs of booze, wearing a traffic cone on your head, trying to piece together events, while begging for Ibuprofen. *Ooph* We’ve all been there.

As I took my seat at The Watermill Theatre for Oscar Wilde’s social satire The Importance Of Being Earnest, the stage was littered with a party hangover being efficiently tidied by a uniformed Jeeves (played by the very agile Morgan Philpott) – empties, traffic cone, tennis rackets, a hobby horse, bear skin rug with a rose between its teeth, loud hailer… all that was missing was Larry Grayson and a cuddly toy.

Kate Budgen’s production is a play for 24-hour (Victorian) party people with loose morals, bad manners and a rather low opinion of marriage – and we likey. The Importance Of Being Earnest tells the story of two bachelors, John ‘Jack’ Worthing and Algernon ‘Algy’ Moncrieff, who create alter egos named Ernest to escape their tiresome lives. They attempt to win the hearts of two ladies – Gwendolen and Cecily – who, conveniently, claim to only love fellas called Ernest. The pair struggle to keep up with their own lies and we get to watch the car crash as the whole thing unravels. God only knows what these boys would have said and done if they had Tinder in their lives?

The Importance of Being Earnest Cast Watermill Newbury

‘Bunburying’ Algy and dandyish Jack’s bromance is brilliantly played out by Peter Bray and Benedict Salter. Bray certainly gets the best lines and the best outfits, too. But it is the superbly directed Strictly-style fight scene over a buttered muffin that puts these two on a theatrical pedestal. ‘I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs.” It’s all the more impressive given the size of The Watermill stage, which is tiny.

As for the women desperate to put a ring on it? I loved them both. Claudia Jolly’s elegant (totally gagging for it) Gwendolen, glides round the stage until her mother Lady Bracknell’s back is turned and she’s pashing with Jack like it’s her last chance for a fumble at the school disco. Little Cecily (played by Charlotte Beaumont) has the energy of an excited puppy, but she’s bored and looking for a play mate – only to find it in man child Algy. If only his name was Ernest.

CAst of The Importance of being Earnest Watermill Theatre Newbury

Image: Philip Tull

William Morris makes a surprise guest appearance. Not the man, but the prints. Lovely timing as  the River & Rowing Museum has a WM exhibition (ends 14 Jul). There is a subtle explosion of chintz. Amy Jane Cook’s set focusses on one wallpapered wall, blending beautifully with the costumes, each with its own Morris fabric. Gwendolen’s cape, in particular, is a beaut.

Of course the modern opposite of chintz and heirloom furniture is the disposable, convenience of plastic cups, paper plates and wipe down chairs, all used to great effect throughout. One woman’s leather-bound diary is another woman’s fluffy bunny journal. These not-so-subtle props bridging the gap between Wilde’s then and our now.



I was worried that a play first performed in 1895 would feel outdated and, well, a bit dull. But Wilde’s wit and social observations are as relevant today as they were back in the day, held together by Lane the butler’s comedic catching skills and withering looks. This is a quality cast, who fire their lines out without missing a beat and they brought two hours of non-stop laughter to The Watermill. Polish your cultural halo, bin off Love Island and see this.

The Importance Of Being Earnest is on at The Watermill Theatre in Bagnor until Sat 29 Jun 

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