Review by Rosie Holmes
The Rose Theatre in Kingston is currently home to Denzel Westley-Sanderson’s production of The Importance of being Earnest. One of Oscar Wilde’s most famous plays has been brought to life in this new production aiming to put Black history in the spotlight.
This production of Wilde’s farce features some splendid moments of slapstick comedy. However, the production does not simply rely on these moments for its laughs. Wilde is known for his satirical humour and sometimes outlandish social commentary and its surprising to see how many of his views hold up amongst contemporary audiences. The line “If the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them” provided quite the chuckle amongst the audience. Whereas, some of Wilde’s more outdated views still led to hilarity as the audience laughed at the absurdity of the claims.
Whilst Wilde’s witty writing and Westley-Sanderson’s energetic direction provide a great foundation for a successful play, it is the cast themselves that make this play such a joy to watch. Indeed, there was no weak link in the play and the cast delivered the farcical scenes with energy and charisma. Phoebe Campbell makes her professional stage debut as Cecily, whom excellently portrays the youthful character, who is responsible for one of the show’s funniest lines “When I see a ho, I call it a ho.’”
Abiola Owokonira and Justice Ritchie play the roles of Algernon and John, with great wit. In act two, the pair form a double act as they try and win their women back, this for me, was one of the highlights of the show as they showcase their comedic skills. Daniel Jacob (also known as Vinegar Strokes from RuPaul’s Drag Race UK) is a wonderful Lady Bracknell, although I daresay could have amped up the drama even further. This is not the first time this character has been played by a man, although in this production this deliberate casting forms part of Westley-Sanderson’s gender fluid approach. In fact, this is the first time the role of Dr Chasuble has been played by a woman, creating a lesbian relationship between her and Joanne Henry’s Miss Prism. This gives an updated feel to a Victorian show, hopefully one Oscar Wilde would approve of himself.
Westley-Sanderson has cast an all-black company in order to open up conversations about Black Victorians, showing that Black people did exist in English society prior to the Windrush Generation. He said “If seeing Black people who look stunning in Victorian dress, who were rich, who weren’t just on the plantation prompts some curiosity about Black Victorians, I’ll be very happy.” Indeed, the costumes in this play are stunning and create a wonderful visual. John Worthing’s mourning outfit was wickedly outrageous, and as for Algeron’s wonderful velvet house coat- does anyone know where I can get one?
Along with the wonderful costumes, Lily Arnold’s set is very effective too. Clever use of a transparent screen means we not only see the forefront of action but background action too. This provides some comedic moments as we see secret interactions and reactions. This device also allows Valentine Hanson to provide plenty of comedy as butler, Merriman, as he struggles in the background with Algernon’s heavy luggage. At the end of the play, we see portraits of Black Victorians framed within John Worthing’s country home, showcasing therefore the existence of Black People in the Victorian era.
If I were to make any criticism of this show it is perhaps that the first act could be slightly faster paced, I did worry slightly it was going to be a bit slow-moving, However, the second half certainly makes up for this, as the show then picks up and seems to travel at 100 miles an hour.
In an interview, Denzel said that the most important thing is that the production bring joy. The play certainly does that and I found myself, along with the rest of the audience laughing and smiling throughout. The standing ovation the production received is testament to what an enjoyable night at the theatre this production is. Whilst this is an updated version of Wilde’s work, it still stays true to the original script, providing modern touches through the casting of the show and the relaxed movements of the cast. Subtle it is not, but I guarantee this show will make you laugh and smile.
The Importance Of Being Earnest is at The Rose Theatre until 12th November 2022. Tickets available at https://rosetheatre.org/whats-on/the-importance-of-being-earnest
Photos by Mark Senior