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Review: The Importance of Being Earnest at Royal Exchange Theatre ‘doesn’t miss a beat’

A brilliant modern adaption of Oscar Wilde's classic has landed at the Royal Exchange Theatre
The importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde’s farcical comedy The Importance of Being Earnest was first performed on- stage at St James’s Theatre in 1895.

This latest interpretation is brought to the Royal Exchange Theatre by director Josh Roche, who manages to infuse the stuffy propriety of Victorian London with a modern flavour, while still managing to pay homage to its origins.

The Importance of Being Earnest at The Royal Exchange

The Importance of Being Earnest,  The Royal Exchange Theatre, Credit: Johan Persson

Chiefly, this is achieved through its spectacular and highly stylised set design by Eleanor Bull who uses the Royal Exchange Theatre’s uniquely dynamic stage and seating space to amazing effect.

Upon taking your seat, you are immediately treated to the sight of what is truly one of the most impressively designed sets, and one that couldn’t be more suited to the task of representing a slice of Wilde’s Victorian London – albeit with a few modern and stylistic touches thrown in for glorious effect.

Beautiful set design

At its centre and looming over the stage– or should that be blooming – is the impressive spectacle of an enormous blossoming pink petal installation, dominating the space and casting its warming hues over the scene below.

To further accentuate the chosen colour palate, the borders of the stage are adorned with fluffy pink throw pillows that encircle the stage like a bed of marshmallows.

It’s all very grand and opulent and befitting of a bachelor pad – Chez Lounge and all – where we find Algernon (Parth Thakerar) ruminating over how unspeakably dull his life has become, trapped as he is in a never-ending cycle of social obligations that dominate his calendar.

Jack and Algy

After the arrival of Jack (Robin Morrissey), his friend and fellow ‘victim’ of this insufferable state of social affairs, the pair engage in some good-natured banter, before Algy (Algernon) hatches a plan to liven up his wearisome existence.

It turns out that Jack has been maintaining a dual identity so that he might live out one life in town and another in the country – a scheme Algy refers to as Bunburying: a reference to his fictitious friend, Bunbury, whom he often ‘visits’ in the countryside when in need of an escape from any undesirable social occasions.

Jack has been maintaining the identity of Ernest while in town, and Jack while at home in the countryside, even going so far as to invent a fictitious brother – Ernest – for those occasions when he needs an excuse to visit the city.

For it is Ernest’s – that is, Jack’s – intention to woo and marry Algy’s cousin, Gwendoline (Phoebe Pryce), daughter of the draconic Lady Bracknell (Abigail Cruttenden).

An exploration of social standing

Credit: Johan Persson

However, owing to Jack’s undesirable social standing, Lady Bracknell is strongly opposed to the union – a fact Gwendoline is undeterred by, being quite taken with him, and for whom it has always been her ideal to “love someone of the name Ernest”.

When it is revealed to Algy that Jack is guardian to “an excessively pretty ward who is only just eighteen” named Cecily (Rumi Sutton), Algy hatches a plan to assume the identity of Ernest – Jack’s brother in the city – and pay her a surprise visit at Jack’s countryside home.

Coincidentally, it has also been Cecily’s dream to “love someone whose name was Ernest”, having already fallen for Uncle Jack’s brother in the city after hearing so much about him.

Cecily spends her time wiling away the days, under the tutelage of Miss Prism (Emma Cunniffe) and Dr Chasuble (Ian Bartholomew), dreaming of an end to the boredom and drudgery of her life in the countryside.

Unsurprisingly, it all begins to unravel as Gwendoline and Cecily come face-to-face, the men are found out and are forced to come clean about their deceptions, with hilarious results.

It is worth noting that as these ludicrous events are taking place, the gardener, Merriman and butler, Lane (both played by James Quinn) continue to go about their business, taking all of the events in their stride, clearly accustomed to the absurd behaviours exhibited by their employers.

To add an extra layer to the ongoing farce, there is also a subplot involving Jack’s mysterious origins, a handbag, and the Brighton line at Victoria station, but to reveal anything more would be an injustice to the show’s energetic and explosive finale which sees cast members using the full space of the Royal Exchange Theatre to great effect.

Complex and sophisticated dialogue

It is no small feat to deliver the at-times complex and sophisticated dialogue contained within Wilde’s legendary play, but every cast member – bar none – does so without missing a beat.

A particular shout-out goes to the exceptional Abigail Cruttenden as Lady Bracknell, whose acerbic wit and unwavering notion of what constitutes civilised behaviour – and what does not – make for some of the highlights in what is a highly polished and extremely sophisticated interpretation of a play that has to be seen to be believed.

Tickets for The Importance of Being Earnest at Royal Exchange Theatre

Hilarious from start to finish – The Importance of Being Earnest runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until the 20th of July.

You can get tickets by clicking here

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