Following hard on the heels of the modern-set The Picture of Dorian Gray, this North of England-set version of The Importance of Being Earnest shows that Oscar Wilde’s works can still be relevant and ripe for re-invention.
Set up north in the mythical land of cobbles, flat caps, and “t’ foot of our stairs”, this adaptation of the perennial classic play is set in the world of showbusiness.
Jack Worthing is now Jamil (Gurjeet Singh), stage name Ernest North, an aspiring actor with his vlog about the grim and wild surroundings he lives in. He is British Asian, but his agent (Harriet Thorpe) is dismissive of his identity, various calling him ‘Jimmy’ and ‘Jonathan’ in their brief video calls.
Algy Moncrieff (Tom Dixon) is a posh boy, a superstar performer who is doted on by “little Safina”, Jamil’s younger relative. How he is “being Earnest” is an inspiring switch from writer Yasmeen Khan and director Mina Anwar (who also plays Ms Begum, the equivalent of Lady Bracknell).
All the references are spot-on, with the original play floating beneath a script which uses it as inspiration but makes it fit the time and place in which it is now set. Cecily, now Safina (Zoe Iqbal), lives in “Denby Dale” in a terraced house, so gone are town and country considerations and even, I’m sad to say, cucumber sandwiches.
Now a proposed date at Nando’s is cause for alarm and motherly questioning, as Jamil and Gul (Nikki Patel) navigate their developing attraction. The so-important handbag of Wilde’s time is referenced, but is not quite the revelation it would have been in Victorian times (“an actor found in an accessory!”).
With Jamil setting aside his Asian culture for flat caps and “by gums”, and his love interest fixed on her ‘gram, this Earnest is strictly up to date.
Very funny without betraying the original source, and taking aim, affectionately, at the north of England, and its stereotypes. Algy is as pretentious as he always is, while “Ernest” is trying to find his niche.
There are lots of little flourishes that I liked: butlers Lane and Merriman have now become a pouty drag artist (Divina De Campo) and a pretentious acting coach (Paul Chahidi); Jamil is “Ernest online and Jamil in real life” and pledges to delete all his videos to kill his alter ego; Miss Prism (Melanie Marshall) is a lifestyle guru; and there is a delicious joke about “Augusta” near the end.
The love in the north for TV gameshows is relevant, too, but you will have to watch to find out why.
As a northern lass by birth myself I really enjoyed this, and if every scene doesn’t quite hit the mark (a TV show bit with Hugh Dennis and Sindhu Vee felt a bit forced), it is at least trying to do something different with a piece we all know so well.
You can watch The Importance of Being Earnest (co-produced by Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, and The Dukes, Lancaster) until 4 May 2021. For information and tickets go here (£12 for 48 hour access).
LouReviews received complimentary access to review The Importance of Being Earnest.