The hilariously classic Oscar Wilde tale, The Importance of Being Earnest, is reimagined in a fresh and contemporary new production at The Rose Theatre in Kingston. The vision for this modernised version of the play is to draw attention to the lives of the often-forgotten black Victorians who were an integral part of society in the 19th century. Oscar Wilde believed that rules are made to be broken and boundaries are designed to be pushed, this current production encapsulating all kinds of exploration including a gender fluid approach to some characters and drag queen Vinegar Strokes playing Lady Bracknell.
The story is one of two friends in high society, John ‘Jack’ Worthing, and Algernon ‘Algie’ Moncrieff who each create alter-egos coincidentally named Ernest to escape their tiresome lives. Each man may only marry within their status, trying desperately to win the hearts of their loves who both seem to be enamoured with the name ‘Ernest’.
The play begins abruptly with a light-hearted and fun opening sequence incorporating movement and music. This sets the tone for the play and is a wonderful introduction to the 19th century. The staging is simple yet effective, the most prominent feature being the picture frames which are used as staging devices such as doorways or to depict a change of scenery by changing the pictures within them. Behind the stage, there is a backdrop which is sometimes lit and used effectively to aid comedic moments which happen outside of the main action. There are musical moments at points during the show, for example during a friendly chase which create excitement for the audience and light and sound is used later on with the picture frames to create a perfect sense of drama. The set changes are smooth and simple but prominent props are used to depict the two areas where the story is set: the town and the country.
Most of the first Act is the conversation between the two bachelors, Mr Worthing (Justice Ritchie) and Mr Moncrieff (Abiola Owokonira), with Mr Moncrieff’s butler, the perfectly pessimistic and cynical Lane (Valentine Hanson) entering the stage in different ways to make the audience cackle. Hanson’s ability to make a single gesture excruciatingly funny must be admired. Hanson later shines in his portrayal as Merriman, Jack’s country butler, similarly providing perfectly timed slapstick amusement. The chemistry between Ritchie and Owokonira as two firm friends is perfectly believable, each bringing their characters to life in an expressive, fun, and fresh way. Both men make commendable attempts with the 19th century sociolect, however with the nature of the script, at times some lines were lost due to the fast-paced delivery required.
Whenever Lady Bracknell (Daniel Jacob) appeared on stage, the audience were captivated. Her first entrance was dramatic and perfectly in line with character, Jacob sauntering around the stage. Her physicality, voice and demeanour made her a joy to watch, her scenes with other cast members all with fantastic chemistry. Lady Bracknell’s daughter, Gwendolen (Adele James) had huge energy, James’ almost over-acting was perfectly placed and was never too much. Her physicality and facial expressions were pronounced yet spot-on and were fantastic moments throughout the show. The impeccable chemistry between Jacob and James on stage as mother and daughter was palpable.
The characters Miss Prism (Joanne Henry) and Dr. Chasuble (Anita Reynolds) are a great addition to the performance, their implied sexual tension being a further modern twist on this classic. Henry’s adopted sociolect was flawless. Again, the chemistry between the actors on stage is perfect and the scenes with Miss Prism and Cecily have vast energy and form a believable relationship. In fact, Cecily (Phoebe Campbell) lit up the stage in each scene, particularly when she was able to bounce off the other cast members. Her scene with Mr Moncrieff where he deceives Cecily that he is in fact Mr Earnest was innocently comical and endearing, their chemistry demonstrable.
The showstopper scene in this production is the first interaction between Gwendolen and Cecily. Both James and Campbell play their roles to perfection. Their combination of subtle and slapstick comedy and shade thrown at each other is tremendous and perfectly timed. Both actors feeding off each another makes their scenes together fantastically clever and witty and a joy to watch.
Wilde’s genius is evident through the words he has written which are expertly delivered and perfectly timed by this cast. Each individual member has utilised the script to the full extent and have aided in successfully modernising the show. The brilliant humour from a classic play mixed with the contemporary twists make for a theoretical rollercoaster that will leave you feeling sufficiently fulfilled and thoroughly entertained.
The Importance of Being Earnest is currently playing at the Rose Theatre in Kingston until 12th November 2022, tickets can be purchased from: https://rosetheatre.org/whats-on/the-importance-of-being-earnest
Reviewer: Maani Way
Reviewed: 2nd November 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★