The Importance Of Being Earnest is the first production of a pre-scripted play by the inventive, much acclaimed two-man theatre company Ridiculusmus, and, well, where better place for them to start than with Oscar Wilde’s exquisite comedy of manners?
Subtitled ‘A Trivial Comedy by Two Serious People,’ the key joke here is that Ridiculusmus’ Jon Haynes and David Woods have taken it upon themselves to play all nine of the characters. This is no easy task and they achieve it through the use of numerous costume changes, some carefully placed screens and, at one point, even a couple of hand-puppets.
The main characters have been cleverly divided up: Haynes gets to play the sly Algernon, his prim cousin Gwendolen and the snippy Miss Prism, whilst Woods takes on Jack Worthing, the vicar and a pink-taffeta clad Cecily. They also take it in turns to don the (really hideous) hat of the fearsome Lady Bracknell – with Haynes winning the toss to utter “a handbag!”
As the misunderstandings and cases of mistaken identity multiply their onstage antics become necessarily more frantic. Under Jude Kelly’s direction the piece builds to a fittingly breathless ending with the duo dashing backwards and forwards in a shimmer of skirts, wigs and parasols.
It’s all wonderfully, exuberantly done, and they even manage to squeeze in some shimmying to the Smiths, a blast of Patrick Swayze on the soundtrack and a piss take of those ‘original practices’ dance finales they’re so fond of at the Globe. But for all their messing about the duo never undermine the glorious nature of Wilde’s lines; the comedy still works as it should, the dialogue still garners the biggest laughs.
There’s an air of studied amateurishness to the proceedings – shirts come untucked, lines are spoken through mouthfuls of cucumber sandwich and Woods’ mop-like wig becomes more and more dishevelled – to the point that, when a footlight gets booted across the stage, it’s not clear whether it was an accident or just part of the act. In this way the production makes a virtue of things others keep hidden: with the manhandling of the props and even changes of the lighting being used to add to the onstage mayhem.
A lot of the humour comes from Zo Atkinsons cluttered, atmospheric set, which looks a like an explosion in a fabric shop or, appropriately, the attic room of some grand country house: chairs are stacked on top of wardrobes, a piano sits in the corner, everything ready to be dragged into use when the plot demands it. Atkinson is also responsible for the production’s inspired costumes, the grotesque marshmallow of a dress that Woods wears as Cecily a particular highlight.
So – if it wasn’t already obvious – those in search of a straight reworking of Wilde’s comedy will not find it here, but on its own terms it works superbly and it had the audience in the Barbican’s intimate Pit Theatre crying with laugher and whooping at the end. The whole thing is shot through with a deep affection for Wilde and his words; Haynes and Woods obviously know the play inside out, a feat that is easy to overlook amidst all the chaos.
Always something more than just two men mucking about, Ridiculusmus’ unique take on The Importance Of Being Earnest is a very silly idea executed with conviction, energy and love.