A HANDBAG! Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy of manners, The Importance of Being Earnest, returns to The King’s this week.
Lampooning the hypocrisies of Victorian society, it tells the story of two bachelors, the dependable John Worthing JP, and upper class playboy Algernon Moncrieff.
Both feel compelled to create different identities in order to pursue the eligible Cecily Cardew and Gwendolyn Fairfax.
Hilarious misadventures result from their subterfuge leading to brushes with the redoubtable Lady Bracknell and the uptight Miss Prism.
So far so good. However, at 74 and 64 respectively, Martin Jarvis admits he and Nigel Havers are both “a bit long in the tooth” to be playing Worthing and Moncrieff, the youthful leads, but insists that due to a inventive twist, it all makes perfect sense.
You see, the production shares a similar conceit to the 1988 tour of The Importance of Being Hilda, in which the ageing Hinge and Bracket find themselves playing the young Cecily and Gwendoline when the actresses cast in those roles are delayed en route to the performance. A similar device is employed to explain the casting of Havers and Jarvis.
“It is and it isn’t similar,” explains Jarvis. “The element that is not in ours is that we don’t have anybody in drag, we leave that to David Suchet, who is playing Lady Bracknell currently, but not with us.
“Our way through is slightly different. Nigel, Sian Phillips who plays Lady Bracknell, and I are, shall we say a little long in the tooth as far as being the right ages – I am not 29, Nigel is not 28, and Sian is unlikely to have a 20-year-old daughter – so we worked out a way to allow us to present the play.”
“We book-end it with new scenes written by Simon Brett; we are members of this dedicated am-dram company who are potty about The Importance of Being Earnest.
We were the right ages for the roles when we first did it but are still doing it 30 or more years on and are just about to have a dress rehearsal for our latest production.”
He continues, “So we have a little bit of fun with that at the beginning but then we absolutely take the play as seriously as possible, which makes it even funnier.”
He recalls, “Although it was a long time ago, I remember I enjoyed Hinge and Brackett doing their version very much because they took the play seriously once it had got going, and that is certainly what we do.
“Hopefully, once the audience have accepted we know we are too old for the roles, it allows them to suspend their disbelief.
“Then, because the play is so great, so funny, so rewarding, and so moving at times, they forget altogether.”
They’re not the only ones. Sometimes Jarvis and Havers forget too, transported back to the first time they played the roles together, at the National Theatre in 1981.
“As the play moves on, we all start to feel and believe we are those younger characters,” agrees the actor.
“I do feel as the play proceeds that I am growing younger and in the last segments I actually feel as young as I felt when I originally played the part in 1981 and 1982.
“It’s a back-to-the-future kind of feeling for a moment. Of course, it is in one sense exhausting but also exhilarating.”
The production, which ran on the West End for four and a half months last year, was conceived after Jarvis received an unexpected phone call from his co-star.
“It started when Nigel called me and said, ‘You know, we had such a great time over those years at The National doing Importance, I think we should do the play again’.”
“I said, ‘Do you mean we’ll alternate the role of Canon Chasuble’?” he laughs.
“No, our original roles. We have to find a way to do it. Let’s have a meeting.
“So we had a meeting, hammered out this way of doing it, then pulled in Simon Brett, the wonderful writer of the Charles Paris Mysteries, and it went from there.”
Touring, the production has gone from strength to strength, “It’s going well, even better than when we did it in the West End,” says Jarvis.
“We’ve even had standing ovations, which is a tribute to Oscar Wilde and also Simon Brett.
“And Rosalind Ayres as Miss Prism has been a great triumph which pleases me very much as Rosalind Ayres and I are Mr and Mrs Jarvis.
“The whole thing has fallen into place rather wonderfully.”
The Importance of Being Earnest, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, until Saturday, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £14-£29.50, 0131-529 6000