Monday 12th September 2022 at Leeds Playhouse.
Any mention of The Importance of Being Earnest is often sure to evoke a dramatic exclamation of “A HANDBAG?!”. At long last I know why, and it doesn’t disappoint. Considered a classic of Oscar Wilde’s catalogue, the play certainly receives great treatment here thanks to a brilliant cast who find the various nooks and crannies of Wilde’s gently scathing satire with ease.
In brief, this is a cracking comedy featuring near-thwarted love affairs, mistaken identity and rebellious youngsters beholden to the frustrating rules and protocols of Victorian society. Wilde mocks the rigidity of those expectations beautifully and Director Denzel Westley-Sanderson courts both the old and the new, striking that rare fine balance of offering modernisation and a full throttle period play. A couple of cases in point being the casting of Lady Bracknell (Daniel Jacob – aka Vinegar Strokes) and a fresh exploration of the relationship between Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble (Henry Joanne and Anita Reynolds) with charged moments of unspoken connection.
This production also features a cracking cast to deliver on that cracking comedy. Abiola Owokoniran is a richly charismatic Algernon who oozes everything Oscar Wilde is most celebrated for: wit and indulgent flamboyance. In Justice Ritchie we find a more measured, grounded counterpart as John Worthing – a man who is just as fervent in his passions but provides an entertaining contrast to Algernon’s performative nature.
Phoebe Campbell brings a gigantic dose of endearing giddy delight to Cecily, the young ward of Mr Worthing who just happens to have an immense imagination and a heart quick to infatuation. Meanwhile, Adele James’s Gwendolen could have stepped right out of the early talkies with her incredible comic pace – no easy feat when you consider the purple prose Wilde clings to so well. Daniel Jacob brings all kinds of heightened drama as Lady Bracknell, a role played to the best of all stage dame tropes.
It’s clear that the creative team have one streamlined vision here. Designer Lily Arnold facilitates some fabulous scenes of farcical entrances and exits while also generously drawing our eye to the grandeur of gold-framed ancestors lining the walls – an addition from Autograph, an organisation running an exhibition which spotlights the presence (and importance of acknowledging that presence) of a multi-cultural Victorian Britain.
Lighting designer Zoe Spurr illuminates those portraits in ever shifting colours while sound designer and composer Beth Duke brings us those classical arrangements we instantly associate with grandeur and pomp. Movement director and choreographer Tinovimbanashe Sibanda’s vision means that characters don’t just enter, they enter and dance and pose in something which resembles both a RuPaul catwalk (I’m pretty sure Lady Bracknell even exited “Purse First” at one point) and a distinguished individual sitting for their very expensive portrait.
This production is very funny and certainly achieves hilarity in Act 2, but the real headline here is that it’s thoroughly sparky and buoyant and taps into the best of Wilde’s writing.