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I’m a huge fan of Oscar Wilde (I’ve even adapted a novella of his for the stage myself) and so I jumped at the chance to review The Importance of Being Earnest. A clever comedy of manners which fit perfectly into the upper echelons of nineteenth-century society, I was eager to see how this latest adaptation by Yasmeen Khan would work. Young actor Jamil (Gurjeet Singh) creates a vlog based on his Northern, Working Class background in order to improve his social capital and secure those ever-elusive roles. With help from established actor Algy (Tom Dixon) he builds his alter-ego Ernie and attracts the attention of social media obsessed Gul; expertly played by Nikki Patel.
The complex relationships and social expectations translate well to the British Asian community setting, particularly when it comes to the courtship between Jamil and Gul. As well as directing, Mina Anwar plays the firm but funny Mrs Begum, Gul’s mother and shines in a scene which replicates Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Similarly, rooting the play around the film industry allows for a higher degree of melodrama and ego than usual and offers the audience a humorous take on the life of an actor in the current climate, dreadful Zoom auditions and all. All of us can identify with the stereotypical bad agent (this one reminiscent of Estelle from Friends) who regularly forgets Jamil’s name and the exploitative director who makes several dodgy comments about his skin colour- both played with cringing accuracy by Harriet Thorpe and Paul Chahidi, respectively. Guest appearances by Hugh Dennis, Sindhu Vee and Divina Del Campo add extra interest to the production.
There are moments of great physical comedy from Tom Dixon and Gurjeet Singh and Melanie Marshall plays a new-age Miss Prism with understated eccentricity but there are a few elements of this piece that really irritate me.
Most of the play is underscored with comic instrumental music which is at best unnecessary and at worst, completely wrong. It gives a cartoonish feel and patronises the audience. Only a laugh track could have made this worse; a bad choice from the creative team, I feel. The play has a distinctly sit-com vibe which I don’t think it needed. Some of it is distinctly overacted, particularly the part of Safina (Zoe Iqbal) with exaggerated facial expression and gesture. Oscar Wilde’s plot and Khan’s adaptation are so well-written that they would do well to be left alone with simple, unobtrusive direction. In all honesty it’s funny enough as it is.
Set and costume are colourful and appropriate but there are moments where we see the crew involved — it’s not made clear whether they are the “crew” from the romcom Algy is shooting or the actual team making the piece. They’re also visible in another setting (away from the film set) so as a concept this is confusing. There are a couple of pet hates of mine present too, like the sweeping movements made when holding supposedly full cups of tea and photos of small country towns on rainy days used to symbolise The North.
The idea behind this adaptation is great and I thought it was produced competently given the restrictions currently in place but I cannot get past those facets which annoyed me. I’d argue that the joy in TIOBE is found in the intellectual wordplay and misunderstanding of the plot which do not need the over-the-top staging. I’d be interested in seeing alternative direction of Khan’s play in the future; because the adaptation is worth a watch.
The Importance of Being Earnest is available to stream online through Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield Theatre (thelbt.org). Tickets are £12.