Denzel Westley-Sanderson’s new production of Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy is a lot of things – fresh, modern, fast-paced. But above all else, it’s really good fun; the two hours fly by in a blink and leave you wanting to go and watch it again almost immediately. There are plenty more things to say (otherwise this would be a very short review), but that’s the main takeaway – everyone on stage and off is having a great time from start to finish.
Wilde’s plot is complex and chaotic, full of mistaken identities, unlikely coincidences and outrageous snobbery. Jack (Justice Ritchie) is in love with Gwendolen (Adele James), the cousin of his friend Algernon (Abiola Owokonira) and daughter of the indomitable Lady Bracknell (Daniel Jacob). Algernon, meanwhile, falls for Jack’s ward Cecily (Phoebe Campbell). But despite both women returning their admirers’ affections, an “insuperable barrier” stands in the way of their unions – and it’s probably not what you might expect.
There must now be countless adaptations of The Importance of Being Earnest, a testament to the play’s enduring appeal – and even those who’ve never seen it will be familiar with such immortal phrases as “A HANDBAG?!” It’s hard to imagine how another new production could possibly bring something new, but Westley-Sanderson, while remaining true to the original text (with a couple of small tweaks for comic effect), brings a fresh perspective not only to this story but to the audience’s understanding of Black history. The casting is no gimmick; Black people lived and thrived in Britain long before Windrush, and the assumption that Wilde’s characters must automatically be white is one that can and should be challenged. The production also introduces an element of gender fluidity, most notably in the now same-sex relationship between Dr Chasuble (Anita Reynolds) and Miss Prism (Joanne Henry), a small but refreshing edit that subtly modernises the play.
Under Westley-Sanderson’s direction, the vivacious cast – which includes two actors making their professional debut – don’t put a foot wrong. Abiola Owokonira and Justice Ritchie are a joyous comedy double act as Algernon and Jack, Phoebe Campbell’s Cecily is delightfully forward, and Daniel Jacob (aka Drag Race UK‘s Vinegar Strokes) is quite the force to be reckoned with as Lady Bracknell. Special mention also to Valentine Hanson, who plays the two butlers, Merriman and Lane – he doesn’t get a lot of lines, but proves to be an expert in physical comedy and steals more than one scene without saying a word.
Designer Lily Arnold brings us a visually sumptuous production – a versatile set hides more than one secret, and the costumes are all exquisite (Jack’s absurd mourning outfit is a particular highlight). The action moves at a rapid pace, but never leaves the audience behind; we’re all right there with the characters every step of the way – and occasionally enjoy the delicious privilege of being one step ahead of them. All in all, this is simply a hugely entertaining and joyfully silly production that it’s difficult not to fall in love with, but it’s also a thoughtful and considered adaptation of a well-known classic.
The Importance of Being Earnest is at Rose Theatre until 12th November.