The Importance of Being Earnest
Yasmeen Khan, based on the play by Oscar Wilde
Lawrence Batley Theatre & The Dukes Lancaster
Lawrence Batley Theatre continues its impressive output of online theatre with this piece that shares a title with Wilde's most famous play and occasionally touches base with it—these are the sorts of people that would use that awful term that has me reaching for the delete key whenever I see it in an e-mail—but it is set in a world that Wilde would not recognise.
The characters are shallow and self-obsessed; everything they say and do is carefully measured for its effect on others and they are very keen to follow the rules of their society to maintain their social positions. That much is exactly like the parent play, but this society is the world of online influencers, social media, lifestyle gurus and TV stars—something with which writer Yasmeen Khan, who writes for Eastenders, will be very familiar.
In this version of the story, Algy (Tom Dixon) is a popular romcom star and something of a sex symbol who is reluctantly mentoring Jamil (Gurheet Singh), an out-of-work actor who has started a YouTube channel reporting on life in the north of England under the name Earnest. Jamil is in love with Instagram-obsessed Gul (Nikki Patel), who of course could only love a man called Earnest—and her mother Ms Begum (Mina Anwar, who also directs) does not approve of someone with his background and low follower count.
Algy falls for a picture of Jamil's... well the relationship is unclear, but he is very protective towards Safina (Zoe Iqbal), but Algy sets off to offer her a part in his show. He finds Safina with Miss Prism (Melanie Marshall), a lifestyle guru and general purveyor of mumbo jumbo, who, when we first see her, is teaching her client about the feng shui of felt-tip pens. Of course, everything ends happily, if not entirely as Wilde envisaged, although a handbag of a sort is involved.
Whereas the unlikely neatness of how Wilde ties up every part of the plot is one of the biggest gags, this version leaves a lot of loose ends and many elements of the story and characters are left rather vague. A lot of the humour is poking fun at the acting profession, social media obsession and some cringeworthy comments from well-meaning white, middle-class people to those of south Asian heritage when talking about their 'culture'—all good, if not particularly difficult or original, targets. Some of Wilde's dialogue does survive, but doesn't always sit comfortably alongside the modern language, and there are some knowing winks to those familiar with the original in references to, for instance, Bunbury and Lady Bracknell.
The cast is completed by Drag Race star Divina de Campo as the PA equivalent of Lane the butler, Paul Chahidi as pretentious director Steve Merriman who auditions Jamil over Zoom, Hugh Dennis and Sindhu See as daytime talk show presenters and Harriet Thorpe as Jamil's uninterested agent. All suit their parts very well, but I felt they could have done with a bit more rehearsal to help them settle into them better.
A lot of the references in this script will seem quaintly old-fashioned in five or ten years' time, let alone the century and a quarter since Wilde's play, but, despite some rough edges, it's a fun hour and a quarter that could also work well on stage, and would certainly benefit greatly from the responses of a live audience.
Reviewer: David Chadderton