Writer: Oscar Wilde
Director: Denzel Westley-Sanderson
In a very sensible and modest interview in the programme director Denzel Westley-Sanderson is, naturally, asked about the play, but omits one thing from his answers: it is nearly impossible to stage The Importance of Being Earnest in any way that is not very, very funny. Those of us who saw Lady Bracknell enter dressed as a Valkyrie at Harrogate some 25 years ago will vouch for that.
So an intelligently realised production for ETT, with all the parts played by black actors, falls down by trying too hard to be funny. It is very funny – a little more restraint would make it funnier. The programme points up the appropriateness of black casting by including portraits of black Victorians, with all the dignity of whites of the time – and the playful interpretation of several of the parts opens doors on the play. On the other hand, the occasional screaming and chasing owes more to wanting to make the play funny (totally unnecessary) than to illuminating it.
The sublime farce of The Importance of Being Earnest depends on a young gent, John Worthing, who is Jack in the country and Ernest in town, and his chum, Algernon Moncrieff, who has a habit of going Bunburying, using his desperately ill friend Bunbury as an excuse for chasing pretty little things across the shires of England. To simplify, Jack/Ernest is desperately in love with Algy’s cousin, Gwendolen, and Algy falls for Jack’s ward, Cecily. Trying to summarise it proves how packed with plot is a play of less than two hours, stuffed with bon mots – and that’s before we factor in Gwendolen’s mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell.
Outstanding in the cast are two graduates of RADA on professional debut. Abiola Owokoniran has a mischievous charm and grace of movement as Algy – irresistibly one is drawn to seeing this as Wilde’s portrait of himself – though one hopes that in the long tour he will take more account of those of imperfect hearing. On the other hand, Phoebe Campbell, deliciously innocent (or maybe not) as Cecily, could moderate the shouting: she can match Gwendolen without it.
Adele James (Gwendolen) and Justice Ritchie (Jack) also excel, James at her best in the alien environment of a country garden despite one or two oddly emphasised lines (“My father is Lord Bracknell” she announces as though we should have heard of him before going on to explain why we haven’t) and Ritchie a nicely contrasted foil to Owokoniran, perhaps lacking his beautifully light touch.
Daniel Jacob (Vinegar Strokes) is convincing as Lady Bracknell, but lacks the variety the part requires. Anita Reynolds (Dr. Chasuble) and Joanne Henry (Miss Prism) are an effective pairing, without gaining a lot from the doctor’s sex change, and the recipient of the best of Westley-Sanderson’s changes is Valentine Hanson, droll and witty as the manservant Lane and then enjoying himself hugely in the built-up part of Merriman, his country cousin.
Lily Arnold’s sets and costumes are a delight and the division of the play halfway through Act 2 reflects Wilde’s original four-act structure. Despite some awkward blocking towards the end, Westley-Sanderson retains a firm grip on proceedings – he just didn’t need to try so hard to be funny!
Runs until 17th September 2022, before continuing on tour.