Th’Importance of Bein’ Earnest
Drayton Arms Theatre
Reviewed – 21st February 2019
“Though it may be a bit rough, this show is the sort of creative flare that keeps London theatre exciting”
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy of manners set in London during the 1890s. In their adaptation, LKT Productions have jumped the play one hundred years forward and two hundred miles north, to a York council estate in the 1990s. It’s the same playtext transposed to a world completely opposite to the one it was intended for.
Placing words meant for Victorian aristocrats in modern working-class mouths is a fascinating experiment by directors Luke Adamson and Toby Hampton. Whether it works or not is debatable. On the one hand, hearing Wilde’s grandiose lines in northern accents was fresh and fun. Designer Rachael Ryan has done first-rate work creating an aesthetic completely counter to the original: the set involves graffitied walls and plastic patio furniture. The kiddie pool is a great touch. The costumes feature animal prints, gold leggings, bum bags, and very large hoop earrings.
On the other hand, most of the play doesn’t make sense in a working-class scenario. Wilde’s play is specifically, explicitly, a satire of upper-class society. Adamson and Hampton make slight alterations in attempt to adjust the context, but they’re fighting the script at every turn. A clever choice to make ‘cucumber sandwiches’ slang for cocaine saves one particular exchange. A few word substitutions (e.g. bus stop instead of carriage) save others. But ultimately it’s a losing fight. The servants don’t make sense – the attempt to pass them off as flatmates doesn’t work. Jokes about dinner parties don’t fit. The fact that Gwendolyn’s parents are ‘Lord’ and ‘Lady’ is something the production seems to shrug at. The play is caught between a genuine desire for its characters to be working class, and surrendering to an alternate universe where lords and ladies wear joggers and speak in thick Yorkshire accents.
Despite the muddled world, the characters themselves relocate surprisingly well to a council estate. Heather Dutton as Gwendolyn and Millie Gaston as Cecily shine in particular. Translating the refined but fierce Gwendolyn to Dutton’s ‘won’t-take-shit’, ‘will-fight-you’ Gwendolyn works brilliantly. Gaston, in scrunchie and tracksuit, wonderfully brings out the snarky teenager in Cecily. There’s a lot that’s really smart about this wild reimagining.
The comedy though wasn’t quite at standard. I’ve witnessed certain lines take down the house in previous performances that simply passed by in this one. Lady Bracknell (Kitty Martin) has some of the funniest lines in the play, but many of them failed to land. There’s also an unfortunate choice to keep Lane and Merriman (both James King) in the scenes as silent background comedy. King’s physical jokes distract from the words, which is a shame, because King stuffing newspaper in his ears will never be as funny as Wilde’s lines.
LKT deserve all the props for their boldness in turning Wilde’s classic upside-down. Though it may be a bit rough, this show is the sort of creative flare that keeps London theatre exciting.
Reviewed by Addison Waite
Photography by Cam Harle
Th’Importance of Bein’ Earnest
Drayton Arms Theatre until 23rd February
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