The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde
Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre

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The cast of The Importance of Being Earnest Credit: Johan Persson
Parth Thakerar (Algernon) Credit: Johan Persson
Robin Morrissey (Jack) Credit: Johan Persson
Abigail Cruttenden (Lady Bracknell) Credit: Johan Persson
Abigail Cruttenden (Lady Bracknell), Phoebe Pryce (Gwendolen) Credit: Johan Persson
Abigail Cruttenden (Bracknell), Rumi Sutton (Cecily), Robin Morrissey (Jack), Parth Thakerar (Algernon), Phoebe Pryce (Gwendolen) Credit: Johan Persson

Josh Roche's modern-day production of Wilde's most famous play opens on what could pass for a posh '80s bachelor flat, with its shiny black floor and pale grey furniture, but designer Eleanor Bull places this square platform amongst a mass of fluffy pink cushions (millennial pink, I was informed), which double as garden plants in the later country house scenes—relocated from Hertfordshire to Cheshire—with a mass of pink flowers hanging down as though frozen in mid-air while cascading from the ceiling.

Algernon enters amongst the debris of the night before, with champagne bottles lying around and a box of cold takeaway noodles (I've only ever seen those before in American films), which he tries before playing a burst of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" badly on a portable keyboard. Jack arrives and they exchange stories of their invented characters: Algie's sick friend Bunbury, used as an excuse to extract himself from social engagements, and Jack's brother Ernest, on whom his own less reputable exploits are blamed.

Complications in his planned marriage to Gwendolen arise when she says she could only ever marry someone called Ernest, and then when her formidable aunt, Lady Bracknell, refuses to have in the family someone who was found as a baby in a handbag on Victoria Station.

Algernon decides to take a look at Jack's young ward, Cecily, and so visits her Cheshire home, where she is looked after by her tutor, Miss Prism (Emma Cunniffe), posing as Jack's fictional brother, but he genuinely falls for her. Rumi Sutton's Cecily is a modern, stroppy teenager with a northern accent (rather than the RP accents of the London set) whose diary is on her phone and who has to record and share everything on her 'socials'.

Abigail Cruttenden's Lady Bracknell, not unlike her character in Not Going Out, is cold, commanding and businesslike with a superior attitude to all around her, making her words and attitudes look perfectly at home in the twenty-first century. Robin Morrissey's awkward, nervy Jack also makes Wilde's dialogue feel very natural in this modern context, though Parth Thakerar's Algernon, while looking very smooth and smart, is so laid-back that he is a bit dull; it's easy to sympathise with Jack when he says he is "sick to death of cleverness" as it does get a bit tedious.

Phoebe Pryce matches Jack for awkwardness, rarely looking anyone in the eye, but has the same firmness of opinion and social entitlement as her aunt, again making this work well with a play that debuted nearly 130 years ago. The cast is completed by Ian Bartholomew as local vicar Chasuble and James Quinn doubling as Lane—originally Algernon's cheeky manservant, but I wasn't sure what he translated to in this modern context—and butler / gardener Chasuble.

Some changes have been made to the script to accommodate the updating, which largely work fine: everyone's income has increased with inflation, Jack's lack of political views make him a Liberal Democrat rather than a Liberal Unionist and Lady Bracknell refers to "the worst excesses of the Weimar Republic" rather than the French Revolution. As the interval comes in the middle of the three acts, the end of the first half is repeated at the start of the second, which neatly preserves the scene's continuity.

There are some lovely comic moments, though not all come off, and not all of the lines are made to feel natural in the mouths of these modern characters. The pace is a little uneven: after an intense first act, there is a long lull as we are introduced to the country house, and the long explanations at the end drag on a bit.

However, overall, it's an entertaining couple of hours with stand-out performances from Cruttenden, Morrissey and Pryce that largely resolves any fears about whether Wilde's brilliant Victorian wit and social comment could survive relocation to our modern world.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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