There is a steadily growing body of theatre based entirely upon taking a classic play and royally screwing it up. It’s certainly a genre of theatre that can divide opinion: just check out Everything Theatre’s various reviews for one of the artform’s main protagonists, Sh!tfaced Shakespeare. Say it Again, Sorry? are clearly another theatre company that will cause many to despair at the lack of respect shown to this finest of arts, and that’s absolutely OK: everyone is entitled to their opinion. But be forewarned, this version of The Importance of Being… Earnest? really will drive you mad if you go expecting to actually see the play named in the title.
So how do they tackle this Oscar Wilde classic? Well, they start by presenting the piece as being filmed for live broadcast, meaning that as well as the suitably attired cast on stage there’s a director milling around in the audience and a crew member dashing about trying to make everything work. But of course, the big element here is the audience involvement, and that is brought about by having their leading man fail to turn up, the director then begging desperately for a volunteer. They then proceed to use every possible trick to ensure the willing volunteer is fed their lines as they go along. This brings us elements of charades, some not-so-subtle whispering, even an onstage printer as they desperately try to print the script: it really is a case of throwing everything into the mix to see what comes out.
And it’s not just Earnest who goes missing. At suitable intervals other members of the professional cast give up for various reasons, best of all the refusal to work with amateurs, and so are replaced with yet more members of the audience. It should be clear what you are going to get from this; a not very true rendition of the actual play, but rather a lot of comedy about how things can go more and more wrong.
It’s all too easy to dismiss the acting when it’s surrounded by so much chaos, but that would do a disservice to the skill of the improvisation. And there is some beautiful comedy on show. The insistence of Guido Garcia Lueches’ Algernon that he can’t improvise leads to some clever visual humour, as he carries on regardless of what is happening around him: the sword fight may be an obvious gag, but it is delivered in style as he refuses to deviate, even when his opponent isn’t there!
Where the show suffers slightly is more down to the venue than to a failure on the part of the production. The Studio space at Omnibus is tight and sightlines are greatly impaired when cast are seated, which does sometimes distract.
Yes, it’s slapstick. Yes, it is a complete travesty of a classic play. Yes, some people will hate this with a passion. But if this is your thing, it is damn funny. And, whatever your thoughts on the lack of respect for the original piece, there is no doubting the immense skill of all involved to make it look so haphazard and yet work so well. Just remember, if you don’t like something you can vote with your feet and stay away. The mantra should surely be, if people enjoy it leave it be.
Written by: Josh King and Ensemble
Directed and produced by: Simon Paris
Booking until: 15 March 2020
Booking link: https://www.omnibus-clapham.org/the-importance-of-being-earnest/