Sunday, July 14

The Importance of Being Earnest – Royal Exchange

When a play is so ubiquitous that most people with even a passing interest in the Arts have seen a theatrical production or filmed version of it, anyone thinking of purchasing a ticket should always ask themselves the question ‘Why bother?’ Fortunately, the Summer offering from the Royal Exchange provides the answer, giving a fresh, funny and resolutely modern take on this classic which should serve to please both new audiences and Wildean purists equally.

Director Josh Roche and Designer Eleanor Bull initially present us with a stunning visual treat, the set taking its inspiration from the floral displays in a plethora of shops and coffee houses that infest our modern world. Suspended from the ceiling an enormous imitation flower display acts to illustrate the fake nature of the world the characters inhabit, with the raised stage populated by the large sofas and the detritus of too many Deliveroo orders surrounded by a sea of ‘Millennial Pink’ marshmallow cushions, summoning to mind an adult version of a kid’s soft play area. Into this tactile and fantastical set we drop Algernon (Parth Thakerar), suffused with the ennui of his generation, resorting to teasing his friend Jack (Robin Morrissey) and creating a double life of ‘Bunburrying’ to entertain himself in a world where materialism and image rule.

What results from this blurring of fact and fiction is one of the best examples of farce comedy in the canon, intricately plotted and with zinger lines that translate perfectly into this zeitgeist heaven interpretation. The well known characters are given new life, Cecily (Rumi Sutton) is a self absorbed Gen Z, keeping her diary on her phone and Instagramming photographs of her engagement ring; Gwendolen (Phoebe Pryce) purports to want only love but hypocritically also requires position in society. Best of all, Lady Bracknell (Abigail Cruttenden) is reimagined as the Boomer from hell, anxious to improve her family position through the marriage of Gwendolen, arch and scathing in her assessment of Jack until his wealth is revealed.

Unlike some other modern interpretations of classic works, Roche has succeeded in using the new setting to allow the original writing to shine. With a few small changes to the text it feels relevant to the age of social media but without ever losing the comedic bitterness of the Wilde original. Small touches land beautifully; Cecily pouting and  posing, Algy doom scrolling as Jack pours his heart out, the cast desperately asking for the Wi-Fi code to look up the history of Jack’s family, all serve to attach modern mores to the original script and demonstrating an adaptation that is neither trite or lazy.

Eschewing the temptation to play up the more famous lines, the actors deliver them as conversation and make them funnier in the process, Cruttenden delivers the ‘handbag’ line – the comedy equivalent of ‘To be or not to be’ – with an hilariously quizzical and uncomprehending air that is surely what the author intended. The regular interruptions to Wilde’s wordy proceedings by James Quinn in the dual roles of Merriman/Lane were less welcome and the unnecessary food fight tipped too far, but even this served to add some slapstick humour into a show can become ponderous and cerebral.

All of these facets show the play in a historical context, an inheritor of Faydeau and Austen and forerunner to PG Wodehouse and Alan Ayckbourn, where plotting of absurd situations in domestic settings were taken to extreme conclusion. The story wraps neatly by the conclusion, a happy ever after for all concerned, the absurd confluence of events seeming perfectly natural in this hyper realised world.

Overall, a breezy and fresh take of a classic farce updated seamlessly for the Instagram generation.

Playing until 20th July,

Reviewer: Helen Harrison

Reviewed: 19th June 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.