IT IS safe to say Gwen Taylor has become something of a favourite in Eastbourne – and theatregoers in the town will be happy to know the feeling is mutual.

“Eastbourne is certainly a favourite with me, I love coming down to Devonshire Park,” says the actor, best known for her television performances in Duty Free, Heartbeat and Coronation Street among countless other theatre and TV roles.

“It feels rather like coming home sometimes. You can always discover little hidden walks and spots – and the sea, which is fabulous.”

Gwen is currently playing the powerful and witty Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest, which was written during the playwright’s summer stay in Worthing.

Oddly, the play isn’t returning to its spiritual home in this run of dates, although Gwen is probably right when she says the town may have had enough of all things Wilde for the time being. “Brighton didn’t want us either,” she jokes.

Taking on the role of Lady Bracknell was a “daunting prospect” due to the amount of versions that have gone before. That said, she counts the character as one of the most charismatic she has ever played.

“She’s a mover and a shaker,” says Gwen. “She makes things happen. Oscar writes that she is far more important than her husband, Lord Bracknell [who we never actually see in the play].

“There’s a line from Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell’s daughter, which is: ‘I think a man’s place is always in the home’. The lady is rampaging around, laying down the law, while the Lord likes the quiet life.”

This gender dynamic isn’t the only element of The Important Of Being Earnest that seems ahead of its time. Wilde was always interested in poking fun at the rigid social conventions of the Victorian era – such as parents more or less dictating who their children married – and dreaming up a more enlightened age.

Such was the nuance of his satire, though, Gwen says the targets of his humour often didn’t realise the joke was on them. And if they did, they couldn’t show it. Royalty often came in for a kicking.

“I bet they were sometimes sitting there and laughing when they suddenly thought, ‘oh dear, maybe that’s about me’”, says Gwen. “Nobody could be offended because his audience was roaring with laughter. You can’t storm out of the theatre when that’s happening, can you?”

And yet Wilde’s play, often heralded as his masterpiece, heralded dark times.

The Marquess Of Queensberry, whose son Lord Alfred Douglas was Wilde’s lover, planned to interrupt the show to present the writer with rotten vegetables – a symbol of what she thought of the play.

When Wilde refused to let the Marquess into the theatre, their disagreement spiralled into the court case that eventually revealed Wilde’s homosexuality. He was arrested and The Importance Of Being Earnest was cancelled.

“It’s strange that this is the last of his plays people would have gone to see,” says Gwen. “It’s poignant when you think about what happened to him afterwards. His later work was tinged with sadness but The Importance Of Being Earnest was a joy to read – he still had sunshine in his life at that point.”

Gwen is still enjoying telling these kind of powerful stories, but she admits “touring isn’t what it used to be”. She says she would find it impossible without the support of her husband, writer Graham Reid.

“I couldn’t do it without him,” she says. “He does all the driving and really mucks in. I don’t think I’d be touring if I was on my own – my days of running down a station platform with two suitcases are over.”

I ask if Graham ever gets tired of watching the same show every night for months on end and Gwen’s answer is typically quick-witted.

“He sees one performance every week, so he could probably understudy most of the characters.”

The Importance Of Being Earnest

Devonshire Park, Eastbourne,

Tuesday, April 24 to Saturday, 28,