First published in The Times, Friday August 11 2017
Every so often, productions of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest reinstate the play’s “lost” fourth act, an extraneous sequence that was whipped out by the playwright at the behest of his original producer. The short scene, in which the solicitor Grimsby pursues Algernon (masquerading as Earnest) for debts racked up by Jack (in his guise as Earnest), adds a further frisson of jeopardy to Wilde’s beautifully trivial comedy of manners.
Meanwhile, according to this “in the wings” play, written and performed by Helen Norton and Jonathan White, still further intrigue is going on in the gardens of the Manor House, Woolton and the nearby rectory between Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess, and the upstanding Canon Chasuble. If Norton and White’s speculative play is to be believed, neither of Wilde’s second-tier characters is quite as innocent and respectable as they may at first appear.
The short, if surprisingly dense piece, certainly captures the essence of its two eccentric leads as they are portrayed by Wilde, not least their habit of skirting endlessly around any given subject before coming to the point. Yet Norton and White also have fun playing with our expectations. Miss Prism, usually depicted as sweet and silly, is revealed to be quite ruthless in her pursuit of financial security and drinks with an abandon that suggests her days of carrying temperance beverages in her handbag are long over. The canon is revealed to have a juicy alter ego to rival Jack Worthington’s Earnest.
The script is gently amusing rather than line-by-line funny, though the string of two-headed encounters, directed without recourse to bells and whistles by Conor Hanratty, does get a little bogged down in all the verbosity from time to time. The show feels on the whole like a clever, extended sketch, and the two writer/performers do a fine job of keeping their confection afloat.