Swipe left, swipe right … Earnest, is that you?
03 Feb 2020
REVIEW The Importance of Being Earnest – The Barn Theatre, Cirencester
Take two men, a no-show cast, and two hours to fill on stage and what do you have? One of the most hilarious double acts we’ve ever seen, that’s what.
Brace yourselves for a Victorian-styled Love Island as Oscar Wilde’s famous comedy of errors is reimagined.
I love a ‘re-telling’ of a classic, it always slashes the odds of wanting to run for the swing doors with your funbag of M&Ms an hour in. Afterall, a play first performed in 1895 always runs the slight chance of being a bit, ehem, dry. But, Oscar Wilde’s so-called ‘trivial comedy for serious people’ with it’s cheeky wit and wry social comment is the perfect tale for this kind of upcycle.
For decades a stage and celluloid hit in its own right, The Importance of Being Earnest has good form. So this reimagining by the highly innovative and popular Barn Theatre had some big shoes to fill.
The premise? It’s opening night and the cast’s van has broken down and they can’t make it. But the show must go on. So the entire play and every part in it – from giggling ‘maids’ to haughty vicars – falls to just two actors, the multi-talented Aidan Harkins and Ryan Bennett (previously seen at The Barn in Daddy Long Legs).
In lesser hands the whole thing could easily have slipped into an episode of Carry On Oscar, but nothing could be further from the case (credit to director Bryan Hodgson). Instead what unravels is a spectacle of stylish physical theatre, lightning-fast quips, laugh-out-loud faux-pas and mind-boggling costumes changes (several performed behind a door as the actors delivered their lines)
The Importance Of Being Earnest tells the story of two bachelors, John ‘Jack’ Worthing and Algernon ‘Algy’ Moncrieff, who create alter egos named (obvs) Earnest to escape their oh-so tiresome lives.
They attempt to win the hearts of two ladies – Gwendolen and Cecily – who, conveniently, claim to only love jolly good chaps called Earnest. The pair struggle to keep up with their own web of lies and we get to watch the car crash that follows.
Cue all shades of comedy capers as the climax reaches its crescendo, ending on a spiffingly uplifting note as the two characters get their happy endings and a lesson learnt about friendship and personal truth.
One of my personal highlights was ‘Aunt’ Augusta Bracknell’s ‘a haaandbag’ line? Getting one of the biggest laughs of the night as Bennett delivered it in full, wide-mouthed mime – who would have thought to do it sotto-voce? Genius. And the moment when both men, dressed as David Walliam’s style ‘laaadies’ meet for the first time and try to socially out-do one another.
The play is diced up into three chunks, and with each part comes a new set change taking the narrative forward without jarring. And we loved it too because clearly a double interval means more time for a top up of fizz and some speed-scoffing of chilli nuts (actually worth a visit on their own can I just say).
In a nutshell? Brilliantly retold, gloriously camp and a fiendishly funny fix of physical theatre. At the end the pair erupt on to the stage for the finale, performing a vaudeville style, high-kicking dance, as they ‘bow’ out as each of the characters. And if you’ve ever wanted to see Lady Bracknell flossing on stage, now’s your chance. There was a thoroughly deserved standing ovation for that.
My ‘plus one’ for the evening was my 11-year-old son, dubious he would ‘get it’, to my amazement he spent the whole time guffawing louder than me – a testament to the cheeky humour and wildly funny bad manners. But how brilliant to be able to share a legend of the literary world with a pre-teen, without even a whiff of boredom.
The Importance of Being Earnest is an absolute delight to watch. It’s also proving to be a big hit for The Barn – being their first production to transfer straight to the glittering lights of London after it’s run in Cirencester.
A visual swipe-left, swipe-right feast for the senses, it’s a brilliant bromance. Oscar Wilde would be wildly amused.
Images by John-Webb Carter