There are some plays where one longs to discover what happened after the final curtain fell and others where things seem quite satisfactorily resolved. I had always placed “The Importance of Being Earnest” in the latter category. It is testament then to the brilliance of “In a Handbag, Darkly”, a farcical sequel presented by Broken Holmes Productions, that I will never again look at “The Importance of Being Earnest” without feeling there is something slightly missing.
The plot, as one would hope, is absolutely ludicrous. It begins on the same evening as “The Importance of Being Earnest” ends, with both Algernon (Robin Johnson) and Jack (Toby Bradford) discussing with their respective butlers quite why the last line of “The Importance of Being Earnest” is funny. As an audience it is clear at once that we are in the hands of a master; the author, Robin Johnson, far from falling into the trap of slavish copying of Wilde, has instead engaged in a loving but acute dissection of Wildean language and plotting. A sly reference to The Picture of Dorian Gray provoked howls of laughter from the audience.
Will Naameh plays both men’s butlers –at the same time- in a comic tour de force. It turns out that butlers are surprisingly useful, not only able to hide dead bodies but also ‘in emergencies, create them.’ Thus it is but a step for both Algernon and Jack to resolve, independently, to kill the other that night at Victoria Station cloakroom. And dear reader, it will hopefully not surprise you to know that it just so happens that Miss Prism, her conscience pricked by the day’s events, recalls that there was a second handbag also left in the same railway cloakroom. It should come as no further surprise that pretty much the entire cast of “The Importance of Being Earnest” also, for one reason or another, find themselves in the railway cloakroom. Cue every trope of farce you can imagine and the introduction of a (speaking) character Wilde unaccountably left out: the second handbag.
In the hands of a lesser playwright and cast this could all have become embarrassingly hammy. This however is the leanest type of comedy, without an inch of flab or filler; every line is either a punchline or else building to an explosion of verbal fireworks. There can be no higher praise for the cast than that every one of them does the script absolute justice. From the hilarious scene changing to the precision with which every head pivots as yet another person arrives at the cloakroom, this is first class stuff.
Though the programme described the play as “an impertinent epilogue” it seems the company undersell themselves. This is the sort of witty, erudite, thoughtful comedy which I think Wilde would have very much enjoyed.