How we use Cookies

What's On

Your guide to everything in Birmingham

Birmingham's New Alexandra Theatre plays host to classic Oscar Wilde play

A classic Oscar Wilde play is coming to Birmingham with an all-star, if ageing, cast. Roz Laws takes tea with two of them

Tristram Kenton Cherie Lunghi in The Importance Of Being Earnest
Cherie Lunghi in The Importance Of Being Earnest

I have never seen so much gold in one room.

The gilded splendour of the extraordinarily ornate Oscar Wilde Bar of the Cafe Royal is simply dazzling.

First opened in 1865 in the heart of the West End, Oscar used to come in every day and sit at the same corner table.

So when the hotel was refurbished 18 months ago, the Grill Room was renamed after its most famous patron.

Now perhaps his most popular play is being staged just round the corner – so of course the hotel is laying on a special The Importance of Being Earnest afternoon tea.

I am fortunate to be indulging in it with two of the cast members, Nigel Havers and Cherie Lunghi .

Sitting amid the gilt, mirrors and painted ceilings of the Louis XVI style room, the menu is pretty special.

There are Lady Bracknell eclairs, cucumber sandwiches (of course), muffins and 21 types of tea. We opt, naturally, for the smokey Oscar blend.

“Cucumber sandwiches are rather the star of our show,” reveals Cherie. “They are there when they’re not supposed to be and missing when we need them.”

The Oscar Wilde Bar at the Cafe Royal in London
The Oscar Wilde Bar at the Cafe Royal in London
 

That’s because their version of the Wilde classic, which is coming to Birmingham, is a play within a play.

We watch the ageing amateur dramatics company of the Bunbury Players stage The Importance of Being Earnest, not always smoothly as characters appear wearing Nike trainers or with the wrong props.

“Some critics have complained that we are ‘messing’ with Wilde’s play, but we haven’t at all. Every word he wrote is still there,” says Nigel.

“We’ve just framed the play with something else.”

“It’s like a beef wellington, with pastry round the meat,” explains Cherie, daintily nibbling on an exquisite tiny scone.

The fact the actors are about 40 years older than they should be just adds to the humour.

Nigel and Cherie are both 62 but look younger thanks, they say, to good genes.

The idea for the production came from Nigel, who first starred in The Importance of Being Earnest with his good friend Martin Jarvis in 1982, playing Algernon Moncrieff and John Worthing respectively.

Judi Dench was the imperious Lady Bracknell in the National Theatre production.

“We had such a good time that I said ‘We must do this again’. I just didn’t realise it would take us 32 years,” says Nigel, star of everything from Chariots of Fire and The Charmer to Coronation Street.

“Martin and I discussed ways of making it work now we’re older.

“Quite a bit has changed. Last time we went out on the razz pretty much every night, but there’s none of that now, as we don’t have the energy.

“And we don’t have time for pranks.”

So we won’t have a repeat of the time when Nigel stripped off completely naked in the wings to make Martin laugh in the middle of the scene.

In revenge, Martin put Nigel’s dressing room clock forward and persuaded staff to panic him into believing he had missed his cue.

“Judi Dench was Lady Bracknell – now she’s a joker, such a giggler,” remembers Nigel.

“It’s very easy to make her howl with laughter . In fact we were told not to make her laugh on stage because she couldn’t stop.

“In one scene, Lady Bracknell is interviewing Jack about his suitability as a husband and makes notes.

“Martin managed to sneak a peek at the notebook and saw she had written down ‘frozen peas, fillet steak’ – she was doing her shopping list in the middle of the scene.”

Sian Phillips plays Lady Bracknell in the new version, while Martin’s real-life wife Rosalind Ayres is Miss Prism and Christine Kavanagh is Cecily Cardew.

Cherie plays Lady Bracknell’s daughter Gwendolen Fairfax, who is supposed to be in her early 20s.

She says: “When Nigel suggested the play to me, I thought it was an interesting idea that would either be brilliant or a disaster. Either way, I knew we’d have fun, and we have!

“We are in our 60s playing people a third of our age, so you need to keep your energy up.

“It is tiring. It’s a very fast farce, with machine-gun dialogue, so you need to think quickly.

Tristram Kenton Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis in The Importance Of Being Earnest
Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis in The Importance Of Being Earnest
 

“I have taken to having afternoon naps when we don’t have a matinee. It’s important to rest up.

“The play is timeless and still really tickles people. It’s so nice to make people laugh.

“This is one of the loveliest parts I have ever played, and I’m so glad I got to do it as I was never offered it when I was young.”

They have been up and running in the West End for three months and are about to embark on a five-week tour, including Birmingham’s New Alexandra Theatre.

Cherie and Nigel have never worked together before but have been friends for 50 years since meeting at school, the Arts Educational Trust in London.

The closest they came to working on the same project was when Cherie narrated Nigel’s edition of Who Do You Think You Are?

She reveals she won’t be doing her own family history, though.

“They looked into my background and couldn’t find anything interesting or scandalous enough. The Italian side of my family were all peasants.”

Cherie and Nigel are clearly great friends, chatting away happily on a series of subjects from whether Cherie should make her pantomime debut to which model of Kindle she should buy.

That emerges from a discussion on whether they could try each other’s reality TV shows – Cherie came seventh in the 2008 series of Strictly Come Dancing, partnering James Jordan, while Nigel walked out of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here in 2010 after nine days.

He complained about boredom and the contestants being given electric shocks in a trial.

Nigel says he wouldn’t want to do Strictly – “I’ve been on quite enough journeys in my life, thanks” – while Cherie is equally unmoved by I’m A Celebrity.

“I’m not good at being stuck with people for a long time, with no escape and nothing to do,” she says.

“I like my peace and quiet, without people gabbling on.”

“It’s insufferable because you can’t read a book,” chips in Nigel.

“I’m always reading something and not being able to is torture. It’s just the most wonderful thing you can do. Taking a lot of books on holiday in a Kindle is fantastic – you really must get one, Cherie.”

Nigel is also keen to persuade his co-star to make her panto debut.

He stars in one most years, perhaps most notably alongside Joan Collins in Dick Whittington at Birmingham Hippodrome in 2010.

“He’s told me it would be fun,” Cherie says. “I quite fancy being a wicked queen.”

And talking of pantomimes, Nigel then realises he has a voicemail from Christopher Biggins who saw the play the previous evening.

He plays it, so we can all hear Biggins enthusing about how much he enjoyed it.

The conversation then moves on to how both of them get about London. It emerges that Cherie uses her pensioner’s travel card to use public transport, while Nigel nips about on a Vespa scooter.

“I don’t have a car, so I’ve always used buses and the Tube,” says Cherie. “And it’s free now!”

Nigel has ridden a Vespa for 17 years, with only one accident.

“I am pretty safe on the road because I really concentrate. I have no distractions like a phone or radio.

“The amount of drivers I see on the phone is alarming.

“I was knocked off once by a taxi driver suddenly doing a U-turn, who said he didn’t see me.

“I was OK but my bike was broken. He said he’d repair it but I never heard from him again.”

The pair are both fans of Birmingham, especially Cherie.

“I love the city,” she says. “I always stay at the Radisson Blu and I love the area down by the canals, it’s really attractive.

“I visit the Midlands quite a bit because I have one cousin who lives in Stratford-upon-Avon and one in Coventry.

“The only time I spend money is on tour, when I have time to wander about the shops. Harvey Nichols is having a refurb? Oh, that’s going to be dangerous!

“Last time I was in Birmingham I was advised to go to the Barber Institute which was very good – I wasn’t disappointed. And I shall be going back again now I hear you have a Picasso on display.”

Nigel, meanwhile, is pleased the tour is only five weeks’ long because he is smitten by a new arrival to his family – his first grandchild.

His daughter’s son Nico arrived four months ago.

“I see him every Sunday and he’s completely different every week,” beams Nigel.

“I prop him up on my knee and have conversations with him. Honestly, he’s a genius!”

We reluctantly leave the Cafe Royal table with most of the delicious pastries uneaten – they have to consider their waistlines – but the staff offer to box them up for us to take away.

After all, to paraphrase Wilde, one should always have something sensational to eat on the train.

* The Importance of Being Earnest plays Birmingham’s New Alexandra Theatre from October 21-25. Ring 0844 871 3011 or to go www.atgtickets.co.uk/birmingham.

Journalists

Graeme Brown
Editor (Agenda and Business)
Enda Mullen
Business Reporter
Tamlyn Jones
Business Reporter
Neil Elkes
Local Government Correspondent
Emma McKinney
Education Correspondent
Ben Hurst
News Editor
Jonathan Walker
Political Editor