Actors Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis first appeared in Oscar Wilde’s comedy The Importance Of Being Earnest 32 years ago, writes Anne Cox.
But they always hankered reviving their roles as the dandified womaniser Algernon Montcrieff and respected magistrate Jack Worthing.
Fast forward to 2014 and the impossible has happened – with a little help from writer Simon Brett. The new version of The Importance Of Being Earnest, starring Nigel’s acting friends, has been a huge hit in the West End with audiences cheering wildly at the end of each performance.
It has now taken itself off on a brief national tour which comes to Aylesbury’s Waterside Theatre on October 6 for a week. But hang on, aren’t Algie and Jack supposed to be in their 20s?
I met up with the charming Mr Havers before a show to discuss Earnest. And yes, ladies, he’s every bit as smooth as his well established reputation.
He may not pass for mid-20s any more but it’s no wonder Audrey Roberts fell for him as the suave rotter Lewis Archer in Coronation Street recently.
“In order to do this play – which we’re all far too old to do – we had to have a framework around it. So I devised this idea of the Bunbury Company of Players.”
The premise is that an am-dram group meets up every fewyears to perform Wilde. The (very illustrious) company consists of Havers as womaniser Richard Oldfield, Jarvis, Cherie Lunghi, Siân Phillips, Rosalind Ayres, Niall Buggy, Patrick Godfrey and Christine Kavanagh.
They arrive at the Hertfordshire country house home of Lavinia Spelman (Phillips) who plays a quite magnificent Lady Bracknell, for a final rehearsal.
The preamble to the final run-through is ripe with comedy. Lucy Bailey’s sparkling production features classic sight gags like a man with a ladder and a running joke concerning cucumber sandwiches.
Martin’s rather theatrical Anthony Scottney quaffing Lavinia’s booze instead of stage alcohol, thesp pretentiousness from former professional actress Maria Clifford (Lunghi) plus an up-to-date reference to a certainly steamy paperback.
Slowly the performance morphs into the real thing. I found it clever, engaging, hilariously funny and thoroughly entertaining.
One problem they had to overcome was the name of the am-dram group as there really is a company in Suffolk called the Bunbury Players.
Said Nigel: “They all came to the first night. I’m now honorary patron of the group! Funnily enough they’ve never done the Importance of Being Earnest.
“It’s all very much my idea so if you hate it you can blame me. I did the play with Martin Jarvis in 1982 with the National Theatre and we always wanted to do it again.
“He played Jack and I played Algie and Judy Dench played Lady Bracknell. We’ve all been friends and worked together since.
“We kept on saying how we must do it again – and 32 years later we are!
“Martin and I had lunch and said: ‘If we don’t do it now we’ll never do it’ so I came up with this device. We couldn’t do it without a device because people would go: ‘Aren’t they meant to be 20?’
“When we approached the other members of the cast they all loved it and got it.
“This is probably the funniest comedy in the English . Wilde’s comedy has survived over 100 years and is still popular.
“I have cast all my friends in it. We’re a very democratic company. We all get paid the same and there’s no star turn. It’s very much an ensemble piece. I’m sure aging has altered my performance. I can’t really remember doing it before even though I did it for two years!
“I originally thought that this would be a breeze for me because I’ve done this before but I couldn’t remember the lines. But it hasn’t taken me long to get it back. It was in there somewhere .
“This is, as Wilde says, a trivial comedy for serious people and the plot is so absurd. It was ridiculous then as it is now.
“Comedy is a serious business. I certainly don’t lark about as much as I did before. We’re all too old for that.
“I did used to lark about a lot, trying to make Martin corpse. I used to make Judy laugh most nights. She’s terrible. She’ll laugh at the drop of a hat.
“But now we haven’t the energy - although, yes, I have made Martin laugh.
“He begs me: ‘Please don’t’. I haven’t made Siân Phillips laugh, I wouldn’t dare.
“Sometimes the audience, in the first few minutes, haven’t read the blurb and think that they’re coming to see a regular production of Wilde.
“They look a bit incredulous and wonder what’s going on and then they get it.
“In Act 2 it morphs into the play. By the end people are cheering. It’s like a rock show!
“They really get the whole concept and love the play.
“There’s a real charm to the whole piece. You could carry this idea on. I could be playing Hamlet next!” he joked.
Following Earnest Nigel is back into rehearsals for panto.
“I’ve just become a grandfather so I swore to my daughter that I wouldn’t do panto this year.
“Then I found one very close to where we live in the country so I’m appearing in Dick Whittington as King Rat at the Malvern Theatre, Swindon.
“I do panto every year and love it. You can break all the rules, stop the show, do anything. Obviously I can’t do that here. You can’t interact with the audience which really hurts me.
“As far as Earnest is concerned there is no audience so you can’t acknowledge them - but I’m dying to sometimes!
“The last King Rat I did was with Joan Collins who was playing Queen Rat. Can you imagine that!? It was an eye opener”.
The Importance Of Being Earnest runs at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre from October 6-11.