It’s a fairly safe bet that Oscar Wilde never encountered a large traffic cone, so why Lane the butler is seen removing this scourge of every motorist from the set at the start of the Watermill’s new production of The Importance of Being Earnest is anyone’s guess.

Indeed Amy Jane Cook’s whacky modern design remains an enigma throughout.

It appears to have no connection with Kate Budgen’s thoroughly traditional, stylishly period dressed production of the play itself. Unless – could the design be there solely to provide some wonderfully comic moments for the actor playing Lane? If so, Morgan Philpott (for long a stalwart of Oxford’s Creation Theatre) makes the most of every opportunity.

With a perfectly straight face, he stylishly serves tea to Lady Bracknell in a paper cup from a tomato-coloured pot, and offers sandwiches laid out on a tinfoil baking tray. When Jack Worthing produces a cigarette, Lane instantly appears out of the woodwork (literally) with a cheap gas jet lighter – no silver Ronson model here.

Meanwhile Jack (Benedict Salter) and Algernon (Peter Bray) embark on their war of words and well-polished deceits: “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple”.

For this to work, and be funny to a modern audience, the returns of serve and the verbal rallies must be as fluent and perfectly timed as the placing of the balls in a top class tennis match. On press night this hadn’t quite been achieved, with some of the delivery sounding a bit stiff. No doubt it will come.

Gwendolen and Cecily, on the other hand, are there already. Claudia Jolly’s Gwendolen is tall, and initially imperious and remote. So when she reveals her romantic nature with a dazzling smile it’s all the more effective. In contrast, Cecily (Charlotte Beaumont) is short, fizzy, and not unlike an over eager puppy. Placed side by side, the two irresistibly remind you of a little and large old-time music hall act, but more to the point the ebb and flow of their relationship is delightfully and humorously observed, and the way they deal with their hapless suitors is terrific.

A high spot in any production of The Importance of Being Earnest is the famous scene in which Lady Bracknell interviews Jack as a prospective suitor, and discovers that he was adopted after being found as a baby in a handbag at Victoria Railway Station. Traditionally Lady Bracknell belts out “A HANDBAG?” at full volume, but here Connie Walker does it much more subtly, gradually building tension through the scene so it’s like a job interview going inexorably wrong.

All in all, this is a thoroughly entertaining production of this old warhorse of a comedy, which will get even better as it runs.


* The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde is at The Watermill Theatre, Newbury, until June 29.

Tickets from the box office at 01635 46044 or from