The Importance of Being Earnest: this modern-day revamp reduces Wilde’s wit to puerile farce

Rumi Sutton as Cecily and Parth T as Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest
Rumi Sutton as Cecily and Parth T as Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest - Johan Persson

No sooner has Josh Roche’s 21st-century take on Oscar Wilde’s high-society comedy begun than one can almost hear the great writer turning in his Parisian grave. If only Roche had resisted the modish temptation to catapult this most Victorian, yet most timeless, of plays into the modern day.

In doing so, Wilde’s opus gains nothing, but loses a great deal. The dropping of ostentatious period costumes in favour of comparatively non-descript contemporary dress does not give it any greater relevance.

Even more problematic is the replacing of the hand-written diaries and notebooks with mobile phones. When the aristocratic playboy Algernon Moncrieff hatches a plan to invade his friend Jack Worthing’s Cheshire pile, he does so by surreptitiously entering the address into his phone, while the redoubtable Lady Bracknell decides to consult hers for a list of “eligible young men” for her daughter Gwendolen. Moments such as these are never anything more than pointless distractions.

Moreover, when the production tampers with various lines, it is always to their detriment. For instance, when Lady Bracknell asks Jack about his politics, his response (“Liberal Unionist”) has been updated to “Liberal Democrat”.

However, this new political gag is, in its inaccuracy, far less funny than the original. It is, after all, impossible to imagine Lady Bracknell saying that Ed Davey and his political tribe “count as Tories”.

Abigail Cruttenden as Lady Bracknell and Phoebe Pryce as Gwendolen
Abigail Cruttenden as Lady Bracknell and Phoebe Pryce as Gwendolen - Johan Persson

Roche almost seems to admit to his production’s comic deficit by using modern devices (such as a coffee machine and a leaf blower) to create noisy, pantomime-style interruptions. Worse still, towards the end of the play, Algernon and Jack engage in a food fight (including the lobbing of comestibles at unlucky members of the audience). Designer Eleanor Bull’s set is surrounded pointlessly by silly, peach-coloured foam blobs, through which the unfortunate actors are occasionally required to wade.

To see the work of a satirical master reduced to such low-grade, puerile farce is nothing short of painful. The pity of this is compounded by the fact that this is a fine cast that could, in a decently conceived production, have done the play considerable justice.

Parth Thakerar’s Algernon is appropriately louche, while Robin Morrissey’s Jack is suitably given to consternation. There are nice performances, too, from Phoebe Pryce as Gwendolen and Rumi Sutton as Jack’s ward Cecily (even if the interpretation of the latter as a sassy, working-class young woman makes no narrative sense). Abigail Cruttenden’s wonderfully humorous playing of the fearsome Lady Bracknell cries out for a conventionally Victorian staging.

Despite its great many shortcomings, this Earnest still just about manages to be an enjoyable night out. The credit for that lies entirely with Wilde, and not at all with the misguided direction.


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