THE IMPORTANCE OF NOT BEING TOO TRADITIONAL ABOUT IT
This cheerfully exuberant rendering of Oscar Wilde’s witty rom-com is also a sort of political act. In the foyer a gorgeous selection of photographs from the Black Chronicles exhibition shows elegantly posed black and Asian Britons of the Victorian and Edwardian era. Onstage, director Denzel Westley-Sanderson (whose last credit was for Steven Kazuma’s “Another Fucking play about Race”) has assembled a cast appropriately Black, and promises a vibrant retelling of a tale about ” dysfunctional families, class, gender and sexuality” .
Fear not. He’s having us on, a bit, and is as wild about Wilde as any director. The cast are resplendent in all the right bustles and tailcoats – plus in Algernons case a silky lounging gown and in Jack’s the most ridiculous Victorian mourning-hat ever. On the wall of Algernon’s rooms the gilt frames sing with bright African art: he’s just finishing one as it begins. Later ,down in Cecily’s drawing room the family portraits echo the exhibition outside. Hell, people of colour were here too, in the culture, so why not the literature? They were: remember how in Vanity Fair there is not only the loyal black servingman but the heiress Miss Swartz: friend of Emmy at finishing-school and the nicest soul in the book. So it is fun set today’s generation, so much more breezily visible, to rollick through The Importance, and do it loud and proud and broad and devoid of traditional period primness.
First thing to say is that Mr Westley-Sanderson’s direction pretty much worked: got roars and shrieks of proper laughter in Kingston, indicating that a lot of people hadn’t known the play’s jokes or had forgotten them. Old stagers might slightly regret the way the fine-clipped Wildean epigrams move past too quickly, and are often shouted, and yes, I did wish Lady Bracknell – Daniel Jacob from Ru Paul etc – was less of a noisy Panto Dame. Some Bracknell jokes work better when she has an underlying dignity based more on confident status than glaring drag-club bullying. Others might find Cecily and Gwendolen a bit wildly shouty too – Cecily is played as a full-on hoyden and Gwendolen a caricature of gloriously orgasmic bossiness. Yes, I do mean orgasmic. Her talk of “vibrations” at the name Ernest is well used. But they’re funny. Just not quite in the delicate sarcastic way we’re used to.
And the chaps are perfect in anyone’s terms, and Wilde would have loved them. Abiola Owokonira is one to watch, lithe and sharply funny and judging the lines perfectly on his first professional job as the elegant Algernon, while Justice Ritchie is a good foil (and wrestling partner at times) as the more earnest Jack. Oh, and it’s cucumber martinis, not sandwiches, and there’s real bread and butter for Jack to abuse.
The programme’s appropriately earnest line about “class, gender and sexuality” made me half-expect a blokey Cecily in a Corbyn hat ,and possibly an inserted lecture on the human right to self-identify as Ernest, but no. In the event the only adaptation is that Canon Chasuble is a padded-out Anita Reynolds, to provide a sapphic frisson with Joanne Henry’s Miss Prism. Unless you count an earlier frisson between Algernon and Lane the butler (Valentine Hanson, even foxier). Both pairs fun with that. And the denouement is fantastic, Jack ransacking an attic overhead with deafening crashes and making the lights flicker as they all stand frozen in panic, finally to produce a very nicely sourced leather handbag and a deafening cry of “Mother!”.
Altogether, it’s a hoot. A lark. Especially the gag with Cecily and the spade.
Box office rosetheatre.org. To 12 November.