There’s always something remarkably comforting about a production of Oscar Wilde’s impetuous farce, The Importance of Being Earnest. Like popping on a pair of well-worn slippers, you almost always know exactly what to expect. But Rose Theatre have a habit of subverting expectations, and in this co-production with English Touring Theatre and Leeds Playhouse, they once again put an exciting twist on a classic.
Denzel Westley-Sanderson’s production remains (mostly) faithful to Wilde’s original, but uses the story to highlight the forgotten history of Black Victorians. Modern day media has conditioned us to believe that in the age of Queen Victoria, the upper classes, the rich, and those with power were dominated by White people.
With an all-Black cast, Westley-Sanderson shatters this illusion. While it may have been tempting to modernise the story, and try to shoe-horn it into the present day, the choice to keep true to the text, and keep it in the original era works extraordinarily well.
Some small changes further enhance the story; the gender switch of Dr. Chasuble for example introduces another layer that Wilde himself would undoubtedly have approved of. Where elements of the text are outdated, the cast glance knowingly at the audience, or pull facial expressions that leave us in no doubt the production is happy to be parodying itself.
The cast go at it full pelt, gloriously hamming up The Importance of Being Earnest even more than Wilde could have imagined. Adele James is wickedly over the top as Gwendolen, as is Daniel Jacob (better known as Vinegar Strokes) as Lady Bracknell providing many comic moments. This is balanced with more straight-laced performances from Justice Ritchie and Abiola Owokoniran as John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, who have the most wonderful chemistry together.
In their professional stage debut, Phoebe Campbell dazzles as the excitably naïve Cecily, and the second act is brought to life with Campbell’s flawless performance. The cast on the whole are strong, but there are moments where some odd choices leave them veering too far in the wrong direction.
Always impressive however, is Lily Arnold’s set design, which utilises a wonderful transparent wall technique which easily transforms the stage from Algernon’s modern art filled townhouse, to a Hertfordshire garden, and formal drawing room.
Endlessly playful and hilariously funny, this The Importance of Being Earnest has been adapted so well, you barely notice there’s anything different. Instead, just like that pair of slippers, it’s just as comforting as it’s always been.