The Importance of Being Earnest at the Rose Theatre review: boisterous and fresh take on Oscar Wilde’s classic

 (Mark Senior)
(Mark Senior)

We could all do with a bit of joy right now: fortunately, a wave of it has been unleashed in Kingston. Denzel Westley-Sanderson, winner of the RTST Sir Peter Hall Award for young directors, brings a boisterous energy to Oscar Wilde’s evergreen 1895 comedy. It sometimes borders on the unsubtle, but it’s great fun.

He’s not the first to give the play an all-black cast or to have a drag queen as Lady Bracknell, and in truth neither decision has a particularly radical impact on the play. A mild lesbian subtext, achieved by casting the traditionally male minor role of Reverend Chasuble as a woman, generates a greater frisson. Wilde would surely have approved.

But most significant is Westley-Sanderson’s choice of young actors, several of them making their professional stage debuts, who bring physical comedy and a youthful sensuality to Wilde’s epigrammatic script. The play’s upending of conventional Victorian morality remains revolutionary, and the cast’s exuberance does away with the clipped stiffness that’s accumulated on it over the years, like a crust of barnacles.

Abiola Owokoniran is dashing, stylish and ever-so-slightly sexually ambivalent as the louche, foppish Algernon. A man dedicated to pleasure who has nothing to offer but his debts; all style and no substance, he’s an entirely recognisable figure today.

Phoebe Campbell, left, and Adele James in The Importance of Being Earnest (Mark Senior)
Phoebe Campbell, left, and Adele James in The Importance of Being Earnest (Mark Senior)

Justice Ritchie’s tense body language hints at the untruths and mysteries that lie beneath the staid exterior of Algy’s friend Jack Worthing. But Ritchie also gets to wear a mourning outfit that Billy Porter might sport on Halloween: designer Lily Arnold’s costumes are fabulous. The men deceive, and are in turn manipulated by, the women they wish to marry.

Adele James brings a touch of hip-swinging, lip-licking raunch to Jack’s intended, Gwendolen, but has a tendency to gabble and gurn (panto-style mugging is a problem throughout). Phoebe Campbell is an effervescently bouncy Cecily and gets a huge laugh when she tells Gwendolen she can recognise a hoe when she sees one, rather than referring to the garden implement initially specified by Wilde. The only other change to the script I clocked is the substitution of cucumber martinis for cucumber sandwiches in the opening scene: no big deal, but why?

As Lady Bracknell, Daniel Jacob – AKA Drag Race’s Vinegar Strokes – trawls through the show like a dreadnought under full steam, firing off acid put-downs. Her dresses are a triumph of combative upholstery, her makeup full-on warpaint, and she seems to have the corpse of a bird nailed to the front of her wig on her first appearance.

Jacob/Vinegar is consistently, drily funny throughout. Elsewhere, about 30 percent of the extraneous comic business could be dispensed with, especially the nonsensical bits involving the servants Merriman and Lane, although both parts are ably played by Valentine Hanson. Most of the performances could usefully be dialled back a notch.

But it’s very hard to go badly wrong with this comedy. Westley-Sanderson understands its rhythms and he and his cast give it freshness and verve. Like I said, joyful.

Rose Theatre, to November 12;