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The Importance of Being Earnest | Royal Exchange Manchester

Wilde's witty masterpiece proves its relevance in this genius modern staging by Josh Roche, delivering hysterical laughter, scathing social commentary and genius twists in perfect measure.

Translating a period piece into the modern day is always a precarious challenge, and while a little slow to entirely convince on its premise, once this newly reimagined production of Oscar Wilde's beloved play hits its stride, it is undoubtedly a phenomenal success, captivating its audience into fits of laughter and entirely justifying Josh Roche's inspired vision for the text.

Through the juxtaposition between the play's late 1800s dialogue and 2020s setting - complete with voice notes, vapes and stylish fashion - the production unlocks greater hilarity as out-of-touch elitist characters speak with a laughably eloquent tongue, all the while playing out frighteningly relatable scenes. What is truly impressive, however, is that these contemporary additions never feel shoehorned nor gimmicky; instead they elevate the meaning of the text, bringing fresh light to its societal criticisms and feel naturalistic to the action of the play - Cecily's monologues are cleverly reframed as personal voice note recordings to form a 'diary' of sorts. And perhaps most comedically of all, nearly 120 years on, Wilde's mockery of the upper class and social barriers still rings truer than ever.

Not only is Roche's production brilliantly anachronistic, Eleanor Bull's delightfully absurd set design brings a further unseriousness to the production: fluffy balls seemingly representing the gardens of a manor house create a sense of frivolous whimsy in the lives of the rich, full of luxurious appearance, yet truthfully ridiculous. The design is also simply stunning; a centre piece cherry blossom tree cascading from the ceiling establishes a saccharine romantic sweetness throughout the play's farce, as does passionate swells of pink hues and rousing confetti. This is a production that perfectly revels in its own romantic stupidity, resulting in a piece that not only looks stunning, but feels aptly so.

Equally impressive is the cast who unanimously give excellent performances, led by a fantastic duo of Parth Thakerar and Robin Morrissey as Algernon and Jack respectively. The pair are nothing short of riveting to watch, bouncing off one another with charismatic ease and whipping up a storm of frantic, high energy comedy. Abigail Cruttenden similarly stands out as the brilliantly out of touch Lady Bracknell, playing the part with almost pantomime-ish levels of exaggeration, and conversely Rumi Sutton impresses with dry wit to similar effect. At the height of the play's hijinks, what truly impresses is the cast's ability to build a continuous momentum of humour and energy - one struggles to imagine a more funny iteration of the play.

While one may fear that a 119 year old, frequently revived play may feel tired or dated, The Importance of Being Earnest goes to prove the power of timeless theatre; Wilde's critiques remain remarkably apt, and the relocation to Cheshire in the 2020s makes the play feel refreshingly personal to a Mancunian audience. What requires no updating, however, is the play's witty intelligence which leaves sly smiles of admiration across the audience. Wilde's greatly celebrated wit is in brilliant form in Earnest, and Roche's production highlights it with great care.

The Importance of Being Earnest is the charming summer hit that Royal Exchange audiences will undoubtedly fall in love with: bright, breezy, engaging and surprisingly refreshing, the 1895 classic continues to demonstrate the genius of well written social satire.

The Importance of Being Earnest runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 20th July - for more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (4*)

Gifted tickets in return for an honest review | photography by Johan Persson


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