Theatre royalty Gwen Taylor on the ‘wit and exuberance of Wilde’.

Gwen Taylor as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo by Manuel Harlan
Gwen Taylor as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo by Manuel Harlan

We move in grand circles sometimes, we of the ‘umble Eastbourne ‘Erald. When aristocracy arrives at the Devonshire Park Theatre, we know to tug the forelock.

Next week Lady Bracknell, no less, is in town in the person of that wonderful actress and lovely lady, Gwen Taylor, heading a star cast in The Importance of Being Earnest – and the other day I was granted an audience.

Frankly, Gwen would be theatre royalty even if she wasn’t playing Oscar Wilde’s great Lady of Manners. Her CV is as stuffed with great roles as a huge bowl of your favourite chocolates. Take a deep breath and I’ll reel off just a selection...

Heartbeat, Coronation Street, Duty Free, Midsomer Murders, Yes Prime Minister, Murder Must Advertise, The Lady in the Van, Shirley Valentine, Morse, Night Must Fall, Driving Miss Daisy, Casualty, Gertrude in a Peter Hall Hamlet, and – ever so slightly left field – a role in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

That is only a sample from the selection box of Ms Taylor’s delights. I would not dream of mentioning a Lady’s age, but Gwen has been entertaining audiences for absolute decades. When I caught up with her on tour with this Earnest production, though, she was her bubbling, chuckling, endlessly energetic self.

Welcome back, Gwen. “Yes, Eastbourne is like coming home. At my ripe old age I’m not sure I will still qualify for Dressing Room 1 much longer – these younger stars will have to take over and ease me aside, but I love the theatre and its audience. Even when you can’t see out beyond the footlights, the Devonshire Park is the sort of place where you feel you know the audience and you are truly among friends!”

“It has been a quite busy tour, but a rather posh one. People have been most appreciative and I’m feeling like a happy bunny. We opened back in the New Year at the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford, and twelve venues later, here we are – by way of such lovely places as Bath, Winchester, Salisbury and York. Eastbourne to go, and then Windsor just ahead of the Royal Wedding!”

I dared not ask whether Lady B is on the guest list but if not, it’s a disgraceful omission. Then again, Harry and Meghan might be nervous of enlisting the advice of the lady who dispenses such authority, wisdom and devastating judgement as Wilde’s classic matchmaker.

Despite the lavish CV, this is the first time Gwen has played Lady Bracknell? “Not quite. I did play the role with this same company – the Original Theatre Company – when we were asked to do a production at the Wilde Theatre in South Hill Park in Bracknell, where Oscar is reputed to have stayed and, by some accounts, written the play there. We did just seven nights to help give a profile to the venue, and it is such a joy now to reprise the role.

“I had wanted to play her but wondered if I was getting a bit old, given that she has a twenty-something daughter. But then Edith Evans in the film version looked about ninety-two! It is such a fun part and ageless in a sense: it’s about her character and qualities. In any case Dame Edith rather established her as a big Gorgon figure, and I play her much differently, and I hope a little prettier!”

Ageless, and timeless? “Yes, absolutely. Wilde is all about the social mores of the time, and those 1895 audiences will have sat there laughing and gone home and realised that he’s talking about them!”

Can it be a little bit limiting, with a classic role and the expectations of an audience who come into the theatre already reciting the lines? “I can only use my own acting tools, my own voice and my body and give my own interpretation. It might be a little daunting, but you know, we’ve had so many people coming in who don’t actually know the play. And that’s really lovely, when you get the gasps at the end when they realise where the story is going.

“We’ve had groups of young people who have asked if we’ve upgraded it, because it made them laugh so much! That is really quite an accolade, I think. We’ve gone for the wit and the exuberance of Wilde and I hope we have brought it off!”

The Importance of Being Earnest runs from Tuesday 24th to Saturday 28th April at the Devonshire Park Theatre.