This classic Wilde play is usually enough to entice an audience into a theatre, the brilliance of his wit and style always a joy to hear. It seems unlikely that it needs changing or fixing but Director Lucy Bailey has embarked on a reworking of this piece with additional script from Simon Brett; who certainly does not have the skill to write alongside Wilde.

The device, solely to enable a mature cast to play these roles, is of a group of amateur actors getting together to put on the play. They are the Bunbury Company of players and the entire performance is their dress rehearsal in home of one of the performers. This expectation sets up so many opportunities that are not delivered. It is not “Noises Off” or a “Chorus of Disapproval” merely a rather intrusive device that takes a while to be shaken off and forgotten about. As a result clumsy purposeful mistakes and references pepper Act 1. Thankfully as the play progresses we are left with explosive, wonderful verbal battles over tea and some expertly handled situations all of which flow from the original text and reflect the quality of this cast.

There is rarely such an impressive company and the cast is a “who’s who” in theatre, all turning in excellent performances. The dialogue sparkles and fizzes; Cherie Lunghi (Gwendolen) and Christine Kavanagh (Cecily) deliver great verbal blows. Nigel Havers (Algernon) is the stereotypical cad but does it so well alongside Martin Jarvis (John). They are well matched by Sian Phillips (Lady Bracknell) and a gloriously alcoholic Niall Buggy (Rev. Canon Chasuble.)

The production is no doubt a great crowd pleaser if the reception from the packed house last night is a bench mark. I somehow feel that irrespective of this enforced framework from Brett and Bailey the quality of performance and script would have won the day regardless.

*** (3 Stars)

Petra Schofield