“Wilde-ly hilarious adaptation of a Victorian classic”
Have you ever wondered what happened to Vicky Pollard when she left Little Britain? Well she moved up north to a Yorkshire council estate and I’ve just seen her with her family and friends. No, I don’t mean Matt Lucas, but Heather Dutton as the glorious Gwendoline in LKT Productions wickedly wild(e) production of The Importance of Being Ernest. From the moment Luke Adamson entered the stage wearing just his underpants and a bow tie it became clear that this reworking of Oscar Wilde’s classic was going to be anything but ordinary. I’m not someone who laughs easily, especially at ironic humour, but the physical, boisterous nature of this extremely talented cast engaged me right from the beginning to the very end of the show – a mean feat with a first half running for 90 minutes.
Now, I don’t know the play very well, but my friend assured me that it was true to the original, which was amazing; especially as it sounded like it had been written in modern times – yes, even with the references to country estates and town houses. In reimagining this play, Adamson has shown himself to be the master of euphemism, employing both the literal and inferred nudge nudge wink wink to communicate that by cucumber sandwiches, for example, Algernon (superbly played by Adamson) means cocaine. This sets up a continuous shared language between the characters and the audience, so that when a term that’s pertinent to the Victorian times in which Wilde’s original was written is portrayed along with chavtastic twenty-first century gestures and expressions, everyone can understand the joke. This is particularly true of the much discussed but never seen Bunbury who, as Algernon’s imaginary friend is as much a euphemistic device for the need to escape unwanted social occasions in this modern version as it is in Wilde’s.
Further demonstrating Adamson and Hampton’s intent to juxtapose the upper-class norms displayed by Wilde’s characters, including the charismatic Kitty Martin as Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell and the gifted Millie Gaston, as Jack Worthington’s ward, Cecily Cardew, with the larger-than-life, stereotypical working-class behaviour as polarised in channel 4’s Shameless within this edition. Another illustration of this is the repurposing of Wilde’s characters Lane and Merriman from servants into mates; with James King demonstrating comic genius in his interpretation of both roles.
Other clever character realignments came courtesy of the added sexual frisson between Miss Prism, exquisitely played by Janna Fox, and the mature lady’s eye-candy, Rob Pomfret as Dr Chasuble. However, perhaps what’s most remarkable is that Jack Worthing is Joshua Welch’s professional acting debut, as he was mesmerising to watch; with the partnership between Jack and Algernon reminding me, if only tenuously, of Paul McGann and Richard E. Grant as Danny and Jake in Withnail and I. There’s no doubt in my mind that each and every member of this ensemble will be seen again on the stage really soon.
The Drayton Arms is just one of the pub theatres from which a new wave of talent is emerging. It’s been quite a while in all of the years I’ve been reviewing theatre since I’ve noticed such a marked increase in the quality of acting emerging through the Fringe, which makes seeing several shows a week a real pleasure. This play is one of the best I’ve seen for a long time. Maybe it just goes to prove that it’s not as grim up north as everybody claims.
Th’Importance of Bein’ Earnest
Written by Oscar Wilde/reimagined by Luke Adamson
Directors - Luke Adamson and Toby Hampton
Producer - Kennedy Bloomer
Designer – Rachel Ryan
Lighting – Frank Turnbull
Reviewer Deborah Jeffries is a PhD Researcher at the University of East London and Rose Bruford College. Her thesis is entitled ‘Legitimising the Victorian Music Hall’, and it contests the notion of legitimate versus illegitimate theatre. It also investigates theatre architecture, purpose and licensing. She has worked for Hoxton Hall and Wilton’s - two of the UK’s four operational Victorian music halls, as well as the more modern incarnation, Brick Lane Music Hall. Her MA in Drama from Goldsmiths explores the difference between music hall and variety theatre, and the place of each genre in modern popular culture. She has reviewed music and theatre across the UK for over 30 years.