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REVIEW - A superb interpretation of The Importance of Being Earnest that breathes new life into this fabulous play

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On Wednesday, we were invited to the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester to see The Importance of Being Earnest. Read what our reviewer Christa Norton thought about this fabulous production...

“A handbag?” There is no getting away from it. Those two words are utterly synonymous with Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. I can’t think of another play – or indeed another performance – that is so identifiable from just two words. Indeed it is even referenced in the programme - #ahandbag!  For me it’s not just about Edith Evans’ renowned performance of the role of Lady Bracknell in the 1952 film, but its because those two words really manage to sum up the wonderful, very English silliness of this play. For all its clever satire, for me The Importance of Being Earnest is just joyously witty and yes, unashamedly silly. It leans into its sense of farce far more than and Ideal Husband or A Woman of No ImportanceWilde’s other two comedies of the same era – and it feels much less concerned with social commentary; the serious thread or sense of moralising that for me fetters the other two plays instead bubbles beneath the surface.


So I was incredibly excited to have the opportunity to see this production at The Royal Exchange – for me a dash of summer in what has been a rather gloomy June.

As mentioned, the play is part satire, part comedy of manners, part farce. It revolves around two main characters, John "Jack" Worthing and Algernon "Algy" Moncrieff, both of whom lead double lives. Jack, a respectable country gentleman, has invented a wayward brother named Ernest whom he uses as an excuse to visit London and enjoy its pleasures. In the city, he assumes the identity of Ernest. Algernon, Jack’s friend, also engages in similar deception by creating an imaginary invalid friend named Bunbury, whom he uses to escape social obligations.


Jack is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax, Algernon’s cousin and daughter of the matriarchal Lady Bracknell. Gwendolen knows Jack as Ernest and is obsessed with the name. Jack proposes to Gwendolen, but Lady Bracknell objects when she learns Jack was a foundling. Meanwhile, Algernon, intrigued by Jack’s beautiful young ward, Cecily Cardew, visits Jack’s country estate pretending to be Jack’s brother Ernest. Cecily falls for Algernon, also believing his name is Ernest.

Farce ensues as both women quickly discover they are engaged to Ernest, and Jack and Algy discover the very real importance of being ‘earnest’ in both name and nature.


The calibre of Wilde’s writing demands a real excellence in terms of comic timing, nuance and delivery of key lines. There is continuous play on words, quick repartee, that makes The Importance of Being Earnest an easy play to do well – but difficult to brilliantly. But this is a truly joyous production of The Importance of Being Earnest that meets the demands of the script at every turn.

The production opens onto a simple set which is dominated by a stunning rose-smothered chandelier in the centre. The stage is surrounded by huge, pink, cloud-like cushions dotted with Greek statues – for me this creates a dream-like quality to the setting. Director Josh Roche (My Name is Rachel Corrie, Orlando, Radio) offers a modernised production, setting it in the modern day, and making some updates to the script. These changes have been very cleverly considered; refreshed political jokes feel much more relatable to the audience and there is a lovely moment regarding a wi-fi password which was brilliantly absurd. Also, I rather think Wilde would have enjoyed the addition of a food fight – the audience certainly did.


It is, of course, without any doubt at all, Abigail Cruttenden (Sharpe, Silent Witness, Not Going Out) who steals the show with an outstanding interpretation of Lady Bracknell. In this performance, Lady Bracknell is no ageing battleaxe obsessed with social standing, but a stylish, fierce-minded woman who is simply very accustomed to getting her own way – and with little patience for the fools by which she is surrounded. I loved the way she is styled not as some Miss Havisham caricature, but as a glamorously formidable, Honor Blackman-inspired woman.


Robin Morrissey
(Coronation Street, Holby City, Doctors) is perfectly cast as Jack, and delivers his lines with wonderful comic timing. I felt really comfortable watching him on stage – he has a natural feel of the rhythm and nuance of Wilde’s script, for its intrinsic humour, and he leans into the humour and the verbal dexterity effortlessly. His scenes with Phoebe Pryce (Father Brown, The Gold, Holby City) as Gwendolen are a real highlight. She plays Gwendolen with echoes of Cruttenden’s Lady Bracknell – sharp-minded and determined, yet less cynical than her mother. In their engagement scene, the way she patiently takes Jack through the process of asking her to marry him is comedy genius and had our audience laughing out loud.


I really enjoyed Parth Thakerar (Great Expectations, Brassic, Gangs of London) as Algernon, the only character – to my mind – who undergoes any sort of development in the script. In other productions I have seen this overlooked but here, Thakerar takes the character on a clear journey from a dissatisfied, bored, slobbish fop to a man with much more a sense of purpose and willingness to do the right thing. The moment where he realises he is in love was touching and sincere, and for me this made Algernon a much more likeable character. He and Rumi Sutton (Miss Saigon, Casualty, A Memory Owed) as Cecily make a great couple on stage, both bringing a sense of energy to the production.


Sutton
’s Cecily is just as bolshy and romantic and sweet as you would hope, and she moves easily between burning her schoolbooks in a fit of pique to earnestly entreating Jack to forgive his wayward brother.

James Quinn (Dr Who, Gentleman Jack, Pennyworth) as Merriman/Lane, Ian Bartholomew (Wonka, Operation Fortune, Dr Who) as Chasuble and Emma Cunniffe (Poirot, Silent Witness, Great Expectations) as the absent-minded Miss Prism, provide highly polished supporting performances again filled with excellent comic timing. I really enjoyed Quinn channelling his inner Jeeves as the long-suffering Lane! Together the cast forge a brilliant ensemble and that is the real strength of this production, which is without doubt at its funniest when they are all on stage together in the last scene.


Like the script and setting, use of props has also been updated; indeed in this production props have been taken to a whole new level. I have never seen a leaf blower used for comedic effect before, nor indeed a coffee machine, but both are used simultaneously to defuse and add dramatic tension, to hilarious effect.

Last night’s performance of The Importance of Being Earnest received a well-deserved standing ovation from the audience and this is a great production not only for fans of Wilde, but for anyone wanting an introduction. My 14-year-old son joined me for the performance and whilst he found the first half – with its slower pace and focus on satire that he didn’t always understand – needed a bit more concentration, he was roaring with laughter throughout the second half, and came away still chuckling to himself.  For me, Roche has done an outstanding job with both the script and direction: this production offers a superb interpretation that breathes new life into this fabulous play and I highly recommend it.

 

WE SCORE THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST...



The Importance of Being Earnest is on at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until Saturday 20th July 2024.


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