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The Importance of Being Earnest

Updated: Jun 21

Oscar Wilde

Royal Exchange Theatre Company

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

June 14-July 20, 2024: 2 hrs 10 mins


Abigail Cruttenden as Lady Bracknell, Rumi Sutton  as Cecily, Robin Morrissey as Jack, Parth Thackerar as Algernon, Phoebe Pryce as Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Royal Exchange Theatre. cr Johan Persson
Abigail Cruttenden as Lady Bracknell, Rumi Sutton as Cecily, Robin Morrissey as Jack, Parth Thackerar as Algernon, Phoebe Pryce as Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Royal Exchange Theatre. All pics: Johan Persson
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Josh Roche’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest is a real hoot – not because it succeeds in uniting the different worlds of 1895 and the Instagram era, but because it so enjoys the sheer daftness of even trying to do so.

The original, after all, works both by the wit of its writing and the pure, improbable absurdity of its plot; and Roche has made this version into a satire on the whole fashionable trend for updating theatrical classics.

He takes his cue from Cecily’s habit of keeping a private diary – only it’s not private, as she’s “sharing the wonderful secrets of my life” – and in this case that perfectly fits the mindset of the Tik Tok/Instagram generation. Everything is documented on their phones, and that habit starts from the outset, as we are supposed to encounter Algernon and Jack in a present-day residence in the Albany.

They are the entitled, the idle rich of our own time, gadflies on the body of society now as much as Wilde’s young fops were in his time. They still have a servant on hand, even if they do get their cucumber sandwiches delivered in a printed carton from Fortnum and Mason.

The text is tinkered with, here and there, to provide a veneer of realism for the time-shift (financial numbers and other odd details), but it’s still very much the play as it as written, and of course you can’t alter the phraseology and cadences, or even the whole storyline of changing one’s name by “getting christened”, a teenage girl being under the control of her guardian, the seriousness of breaking off an engagement, and so on.

Indeed much of the best of the production would work perfectly well if it were set in its original time, as “traditional” productions usually are. The characterisations of the four young protagonists are vividly distinct and enlivened: Parth Thakerar’s Algernon as shallow and self-assured as they come: Robin Morrissey’s Jack, on the other hand, seeming to have some sane and honest qualities. Phoebe Pryce turns Gwendolen (“a sensible, intellectual girl”) into a nervous, over-thinking Home Counties nitwit and can get laughs from just her demeanour and almost any line she chooses. Rumi Sutton’s Cecily is a vaping northern lass, and a bolshie one at that, but she knows what a spade is (Gwendolen, of course, has never even seen one).

The flirting between the couples has an edge of genuine attraction in it, which makes the final happy-ever-after denouement into a sentimental ahh! moment, rather than a contrivance.

Abigail Cruttenden has a harder task with Lady Bracknell, who doesn’t really match any type we might encounter in today’s world (her ilk survived into the time of Bertie Wooster, but pompous aristocracy coupled with controlling wealth is not nearly so easy to find now). Emma Cunliffe makes what she can of Miss Prism, an ungrateful role at the best of times.

Ian Bartholomew is perfectly workable as the amiable vicar Dr Chasuble, except that today he’d be nowhere near as easy to find, with probably 20 other parishes to care for. James Quinn plays both the servant characters with distinct manners, and never puts a foot wrong.

But if there were questions about where this production was going before its half-way break (resuming with a repeat of the final dialogue from the first part – itself a mockery of fashionable theatrical practice), there’s no doubt by the end. The last big scene, beginning with coffee machine noises that silence the actors repeatedly, ends with muffins and cake thrown around the room in glorious abandon, and everything is played for laughs.

It's as if Roche is saying “You can take Oscar Wilde out of his era, but you can’t take his era out of Oscar Wilde, so let’s just enjoy the crazy conceit that you might and have a bit of fun". That’s what an audience likes.


More info and tickets here



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