The Importance Of Being Earnest may be a period piece, but it still packs a subversive punch. Its undermining of the social, hierarchical and class structures of the early 20th Century is lent another intriguing angle through the all-black cast, assembled by director Denzel Westley-Sanderson.
Thankfully the text remains sacrosanct, though the race, genders and orientations of familiar characters are often turned on their head. And while Westley-Sanderson doesn’t attempt to reimagine the story or imply any changes of meaning, the set design (and Autograph-curated photography display in the lobby showing studio portraits of black and Asian heritage during the Victorian era in Britain) posits a ‘what if?’ as to the diversity of the cast and, perhaps, wider society.
This sumptuous new production is a visual feast as well as a political enigma, but it wouldn’t amount to much without a fine ensemble cast. Oscar Wilde’s play combines a comedy of manners with out-and-out farce and revels in skewering the hypocrisy and sanctimony Victorian mores, so it’s a joy when the talented cast make gentle fun of the world ordained for them, characterised by the fearsome Lady Bracknell.
Drag queen Vinegar Strokes resembles something between a crimped mountain and a trifle…
The old (hand)bag, of course, is perhaps more famous for the increasingly and hilariously mannered renditions down the years. Here drag queen (and Drag Race alumnus) Vinegar Strokes (Daniel Jacob) takes up the mantle and their entrances – resembles something between a crimped mountain and a trifle – certainly have presence. However they play it somewhat, ahem, straighter and they lose some of the nuance. It’s easy to imagine Michelle Visage mouthing ‘slower’ but it’s still a canny piece of casting.
Justice Ritchie (Jack) and Abiola Owokoniran (Algernon) are a winning double act, clearly having a ball and allowing some more modern inflections to bring the text into the 21st Century, but their dapper, erudite and whimsical performances feel like a winning synthesis of two distinct eras.
The womenfolk that are the object of their affections and affectations up the ante even further. Adele James’ Gwendolen is formidable and noticeably horny, but it’s her rapport – by turns spiky and tender – with Jack’s ward Cecily (Phoebe Campbell) that result in the sweetest moment and push the envelope of Wilde’s words.
If the first half drags a little at time, the second fizzes like champagne, when the action and byplay allows the cast to turn the production into something unique and memorable.
The Importance Of Being Earnest
Until 15 October