Thursday, October 6

The Importance of Being Earnest – Leeds Playhouse

With this lively revival Sir Peter Hall Director Award winner Denzel Westley-Sanderson wanted to bust the myth that Black history started with migrants coming down the Windrush’s gangplank, and instead employs wealthy Black Victorians to reinvent this eternally witty study of manners and the corrosive nature of rigid societal conventions.

It works because it actually reinforces the reality that conforming to pointless social niceties only reinforces baseless prejudices, no matter your ethnicity, as love rivals the dissolute Algernon and his social climbing friend John seek the hands of two women who are blissfully unaware they aren’t who they say they are. Throw in a snobbish matriarch, a deceitful governess, a randy vicar, plus knowing servants, and you have all the elements of a classic British farce as the cast race on and off stage to great effect.

What raises this above the usual farce is the genius of Oscar Wilde’s words, which more than a century on still raises a laugh as a man forced by convention to be in the closet not so gently mocks the idiotic conventions that stand in the way of true love.

This production is also wonderfully camp lead by recent RADA graduate Abiola Owokoniran’s delightfully louche Algernon, determined to make mischief at every turn, and this confident debut suggests he’s an actor to keep an eye on.  Another relative newcomer Justice Richie is a gifted comic turn with great physicality as John gets ever more confused, and designer Lily Arnold deftly switches the action from Algernon’s drawing room in town to his friend’s country pile  

Photo: Mark Senior

Phoebe Campbell is also fresh out of RADA and on their theatre debut is utterly charming as the feisty Cecily who wins Algernon’s heart cleverly riffing off Adele James’ repressed but frisky Gwendolen. The absurd matriarch Lady Bracknell is a gift to any actor, and Ru Paul star Daniel Jacob trussed up in the armour of some outrageous costumes gleefully zings out all Wilde’s one-liners.

In this gender fluid production Wesley-Sanderson recasts Dr Chasuble as a woman seeking the affections of dodgy governess Miss Prism, which adds an extra fission to the fun the hugely experienced Anita Reynolds and Joanne Henry have with it

A special mention to the expressive Valentine Hanson, playing long suffering servants Merriman/Lane, who with glorious rolls of the eyes says so much, and he’s quite magnificent in one long running sight gag.

Westley-Henderson might have wanted to shine a light on a forgotten part of Black British history, but he hasn’t neglected to retain the laughs working this cast hard as they romp round the stage having great fun with such rich source material.

In many ways the strict conventions of Wilde’s time might be less obvious now, but they are still here in our supposed more modern Britain, so his invitation to trample all over them to be our real selves regardless of background is still one we would do well to heed.

The Importance of Being Earnest is at Leeds Playhouse until Saturday 17th September and then touring. To book 0113 2137700 or www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk

Reviewer: Paul Clarke

Reviewed: 10th September 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★

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