The world feels like an ever-spiralling shitstorm right now, so I was definitely in the mood for some escapism – which Denzel Westley-Sanderson’s sharp, stylish production of The Importance of Being Earnest definitely served up.
I went in expecting good things – the usual boring grumbling from racists aside, this all-Black touring production has had great reviews before it even reached Northern Stage – and wasn’t disappointed.
Westley-Sanderson directs a talented cast with elegance and energy: at times, the show feels as choreographed as a ballet (praise should also go to movement director Tinovimbanashe Sibanda). Oscar Wilde’s plays are so talky they can sometimes be staid, but real effort has gone into energising the piece, including Lily Arnold’s clever set, which regularly has people popping up through picture frames. Thought, too, has gone into balancing the traditional design with reflecting the make up of the cast: it feels like someone has sat down and properly considered what the decor might have looked like had the English Victorian elite been people of colour. The costumes are witty and bold, without ever taking you out of the age (Lady Bracknell’s, especially, though Worthing’s ‘mourning outfit’ is a scene stealer).
The cast perform with energy and aplomb. Abiola Owokoniran is a particular standout – I was astonished to read that this was his professional debut. His Algernon is all louche charm and swagger, and he completely commandeers the stage (I would happily have watched a whole Jeeves and Wooster-y show of him and his put upon butler (a delightfully deadpan Valentine Hanson)). Props also go to Owokoniran and Justice Ritchie (who plays the ‘other’ Ernest, John Worthing, with verve) for handling a technical issue that shut down the show for a few minutes without missing a beat – indeed, winning the audience over even more.
Adele James is a wonderfully spiky Gwendolen, and (also making her professional debut), Phoebe Campbell as Cecily is contrary and engaging. In a world where romance is mostly showiness and humour, Anita Reynolds and Joanne Henry’s slowburn, shy romance is a joy.
If the production has a flaw, it’s a flat and unremarkable Lady Bracknell. I can’t imagine it’s easy to tackle such an iconic role, and despite his sterling efforts, Daniel Jacob (perhaps better known as drag queen Vinegar Strokes) doesn’t quite pull it off. Stilted where he should be arch, he is never the towering presence that such a character should be.
But, overall, this a show to be treasured, offering a couple of hours of light escapism in an increasingly dark winter.
It is very worth checking out the accompanying Black Chronicles exhibition: a pop-up photography display showcasing Victorian era studio portraits depicting sitters of African, Caribbean and South Asian descent. I admit I am always a sucker for historical studio portraits – I find it fascinating to see what people wanted to preserve on film, and also that some people seem very much of their time, others utterly contemporary – but this also feels like a valuable counter to those who argue for all-white casts in theatre productions of classics on the basis of ‘historical accuracy’: a reminder that people of colour were in this country long before the Windrush arrived.
The Importance of Being Earnest runs at Northern Stage until 8 October and you can get tickets here