Imagine the complete works of Oscar Wilde thrown into a box, shaken about a good bit and then dropped all over the floor. The result would be an unholy mess. Even if one tidied up the mess and managed to make the random quotations somehow string together into a coherent plot it still wouldn’t be pretty, but this is the premise of Bunbury is Dead.
The play as a whole has the feeling of unearned intelligence.
What we have here is rag-tag mixture of bits of Ernest, Dorian, Lady Windermere’s Fan etc. The only legitimate response to this strange jamboree is to ask, ‘why?’ They don’t add anything by coming up with a new plot because it is entirely derivative. Even if it wasn’t, the drama can never sustain itself because all the while we are trying to pinpoint where each quotation comes from. Wasn’t it Lady Bracknell who said that? Didn’t Lord Henry Wotton make that point? After an hour it becomes a rather tiresome exercise in a literary join-the-dots.
The acting is ably handled. All the actors move with a light, comically exaggerated grace. Their demeanours also suit Wilde’s drawing-room setting. They are funny, charming and likeable. One imagines that, had these actors been in The Importance of Being Earnest, it would have been a terrific show. Instead they find themselves in this confused splurge of Wildeanisms that can’t shake the feeling of an A-level project gone wrong.
The redeeming joy of the production is that one is left with a kind of greatest hits montage of Wilde’s wittiest lines. Yes, they feel hopelessly shoe-horned. Yes, the play as a whole has the feeling of unearned intelligence. But boy could the man write an epigram. “[She is] a work of art, on the whole, but showing the influence of too many schools” alone is enough to remind you why Wilde remains so quotable.