Writer: Yasmeen Khan
Director: Mina Anwar
Updating a classic is a risky business – the universality of the original being a key pillar of its classic status – so Yasmeen Khan’s new version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest for the Lawrence Batley Theatre and The Dukes, Lancaster has set itself an ambitious target. Reimagined for the social media-using, rom-com-watching, Nandos-appreciating loveless generation, Khan’s subverts Wilde’s witticisms for a broader humour that celebrates its relocation to the generic ‘north’.
Vlogger and wannabe actor Jamil uses Earnest as his online profile name and, when mentored by rom com superstar Algy, he attracts the interest of Gul much to the disdain of Ms Begum, her mother. After some embarrassing television appearances, the group arrive at Jamil’s house where Algy meets Safina, a hazy relation who also favours the name Earnest. As love stories become entangled and lies revealed who will receive the ultimate punishment – being unfollowed and blocked!
Khan uses Wilde’s frame and basic story structure but colours in the details quite differently. Aphorisms are cast aside in favour of a cartoon-like soap opera setting in a deliberately cliched image of the North, where Jamil’s accent and style are mocked, characters are obsessed with their social media influence and the plot is driven by the inability to connect in person.
And while there is no reason to stay at all faithful to Wilde in this contemporized version, there are a number of slightly tangential segments that distract from rather than enhance the plot, making the 70-minute running time feel a little laboured. This includes Jamil’s television appearance on a daytime show hosted by presenters Tony and Libby (guest stars Hugh Dennis and Sindhu Vee) which eventually becomes an excuse to dispense with the Earnest stage name, and a very long section of audition exercises about the north that is really an extended cameo from Paul Chahidi.
The premise is a good one and Khan has created a consistency in approach, imagining her world of celebrity obsession, influencers and social status that feels complete. One of the best moments stages Ms Begum’s interrogation of Jamil as a game show called Who Wants to be a Suitable Boy with intense music and a spotlight (nodding to the play Quiz) while Khan includes lots of really nice detail such as baby Jamil being found in a bag outside a mosque by the ‘big Sainsburys’ and soon-forgotten Bunbury as an excuse for Algy to avoid a demanding social obligation while inappropriately eating all the sandwiches on set.
As Jamil, Gurjeet Singh is a great everyman and the reconceived mentoring relationship with Tom Dixon’s Algy adds a nice twist that changes the power dynamic while Nikki Patel’s demanding Gul and Zoe Iqbal’s Safina carve out their own place in the narrative as characters with agency. Director Mina Anwar’s Ms Begum plays up the diva in her role, while Harriet Thorpe and Davina De Campo make memorable appearances.
The Importance of Being Earnest doesn’t need much updating and it would have been more interesting to see what nuances this cast could find within Wilde’s original text – as the Arcola and Young Vic did when reimagining Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Khan’s version is very silly and, with an age range of 14+, should appeal to a younger audience looking for an entry point to the play, one that this version ensures they will see themselves reflected in.
Runs here until 4 May 2021