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The Importance of Being Earnest – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Reviewer: David Cunningham

Writer: Oscar Wilde

Director: Josh Roche

At present, despite worldwide conflict and most people enduring straitened circumstances, the super-rich, Social Media Influencers and reality TV stars continue to prosper without making any perceivable contribution to society. Reviving, and updating to a contemporary setting, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is, therefore, an inspired choice.

Wealthy profligates Jack and Algernon share a secret- both have created reasons by which they can escape their daily activities when the routine becomes a bit much. Algernon has invented a fictitious friend he claims is so ill as to require regular visits. Likewise, Jack pretends to have a brother named ‘Ernest’ whose notorious activities occasionally necessitate him leaving his country estate where, in accordance with the wishes of his adoptive father, he is responsible for a teenage ward, Cecily.

Jack hopes to marry Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen but is frustrated as his confused birth circumstances do not meet the approval of her indomitable mother, Lady Bracknell. Algernon contrives a meeting with Cecily and is delighted to find there is a mutual attraction. But Jack and Algernon have a common problem- both Gwendolen and Cecily declare they will marry only someone named ‘Ernest’.

The update to the present day is apparent upon entering the theatre. Eleanor Bull has designed a set looking very like a reality TV environment – ghastly pink ‘flumps’ surround a marble floor; a cherry blossom tree serves for the country setting and also as a garish chandelier. The set, littered with empty champagne bottles and take-out containers, conveys a sense of people with money but little taste or restraint.

Director Josh Roche, however, keeps the present-day flourishes to a discrete minimum while ensuring maximum effect. Social media posts replace diaries. Key speeches are interrupted by the noise of coffee beans being ground or a leaf blower in operation. Engagements are, of course, immortalised by a selfie. But the contemporary setting is in accordance with the text- Cecily fantasying in her diary about a romance with someone she has never met is very like constructing an online personality.

The text has been tweaked for comic effect or to celebrate the region in which the play is staged. Mention is made of ‘vegans’ and Liberal Democrats, rather than Liberal Unionists, count as Tories. Jack’s country estate is in Cheshire not Hertfordshire and is darkly spoken of as being in the North. The shock value of the occasional swear word really isn’t worth the effort of inclusion.

Physically Abigail Cruttenden’s Lady Bracknell resembles the icy Cathy Gale from the ‘The Avengers’ TV show but with a voice moving from drawling condescension to a staccato bark. Rather than use the famous ‘handbag’ speech to bring a joke to a close, Cruttenden employs it as a starting point moving upwards towards higher ranges of comic hysteria.

Scenes of the two courtships (three, if you count Emma Cunniffe’s surprisingly raunchy Miss Prism) highlight the characters beautifully. Despite being written as assertive even bossy Phoebe Pryce plays Gwendolen as hesitant and diffident before blooming into flirtatious behaviour. Robin Morrissey’s Jack is the closest the play has to a straight man which allows Morrissey to shed inhibitions and go for surprising physical comedy in act three dashing through the audience desperately searching for a missing handbag.

The relationship between Gwendolen and Jack is charming close to shy; by contrast the courtship between Cecily (Rumi Sutton) and Algernon (Parth Thakerar) is scandalous. Thakerar is a dissolute, louche Algernon lounging around barefoot in leisurewear or strutting about in Italian linen. Rumi Sutton, appropriately for a character raised in Cheshire uses a slight Northern accent and makes Cecily a right little madam burning her schoolbooks and making very clear she is in the driving seat in the relationship.

By act three director Roche pours on the comedy- a food fight between Jack and Algernon spills off the stage into the audience and returns pushing the joke to the point of hysteria. Oscar Wilde described The Importance of Being Earnest as ‘’a Trivial Comedy for Serious People’’ but this charming production at The Royal Exchange is simply a delight.

Runs until 20 July 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

A delight

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The North West team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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