Review: The Importance of Being... Earnest?, Omnibus Theatre

When asked why he thought that the theatre was “the greatest of all art forms”, Oscar Wilde responded that it was because he thought that the stage was the best way “a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being”. However, in Say It Again, Sorry’s production of his farcical favourite, The Importance of Being Earnest, they take it a step further: the actors share with the audience the sense of what it is to be an actor. Indeed, in an interactive twist on Wilde’s beloved tale, audience members are roped in to replace ‘displaced’ actors, assuming the play’s famous parts in an attempt to keep the performance on-track. The result may be rough around the edges, but nevertheless overwhelmingly fun.

The premise is simple: a theatre company is about to perform a production of The Importance of Being Earnest that will be live streamed across the country, but their Algernon hasn’t turned up. Soon after, cast member after cast member become similarly incapacitated, unable to perform. Forced into a corner, the director turns to the audience for replacements, in a haphazard attempt to ensure the stream isn’t interrupted. Fending off alcoholic ingénues and pompous professionals, can the audience fill the gaps and save the day?

Conceptually, the premise refines more than it innovates: the production marries together the genuine spontaneity of Austentatious with the sensibilities and structure of The Play That Goes Wrong, offering a production that is simultaneously meticulously planned and completely improvised. At one moment, the audience could be laughing at the actual actor’s devoted attempts to keep his blocking despite everything being out of place, and the next they could be clutching their sides at an audience member’s spirited attempt at Lady Bracknell – the laughs come thick and fast, from all sorts of directions and sources. In this sense, the show improves on its predecessors, allowing for the actors to play for laughs that are both manufactured and organic; the best of both worlds. Indeed, the cast cannot be praised highly enough: each is expert in managing to respond to the stand-in’s interjections, milking each moment for every laugh it can muster.

However, when your production lives and dies on such interactions, a bad apple chosen from the audience can sour the entire show. In the performance I saw, the audience member chosen to be Algernon was so drunk that her deliberate attempts to be funny and subversive only evoked cringe instead. Conversely, the other audience-actors who delivered their lines earnestly (if you’ll pardon the pun) allowed the comedy to thrive; it would seem the success of each night is based purely on the luck of the draw. Moreover, the production also had noticeable pacing problems: in having to contend with the audience’s improvisations, the narrative of the show itself, the gags devised, and trying to give the real actors performative character arcs (such as the stage manager learning to trust his self-worth) all within 60 minutes, the pacing is at best odd and at worst jarring.

Nevertheless, The Importance of Being…Earnest? succeeds in refining its formula to an art, injecting a sense of spontaneity and whimsy into proceedings: it’s a joy to see, even if you are put to work.

The Importance of Being… Earnest? is playing at the Omnibus Theatre until the 15th March. For more information and tickets visit the Omnibus Theatre website.