“born to be wild”

On 5 Jun 2001, Alfred Hickling reviewed The Importance of Being Earnest at the Library Theatre, Manchester, for The Guardian:

“Not only does this wickedly irreverent revival buff up Oscar Wilde’s old handbag to a gleaming new shine, but by picking up the author’s trail of coded gay messages, director Lawrence Till exposes the impotence of most Earnests. The play’s homosexual subtext is not so difficult to find. “Ernest” was a Victorian euphemism for a homosexual, “Cecily” a popular trade reference to rent boys; as for “Bunburying” – don’t ask. Maybe the reason that more genteel productions glide past the play’s subversive sexual signposts is the suspicion that the road can only lead to anarchy.

This is precisely where Till’s production heads with such gay abandon. Gender confusion is not only compounded but celebrated. Roles are not only reversed but physically swapped during the interval. Buried references in the script are dug out and displayed like prizewinning vegetables – you will never think of the provenance of Lady Bracknell’s cucumber sandwiches the same way again.

Given a cool-cat 1950s treatment by designer Richard Foxton – including coffee bars, Vespas and a gargantuan handbag that spills open to reveal Teletubby-land for the rural scenes – the concept riskily straddles the boundary between a radical re-reading and a send-up. But Till’s ram raid on the play’s sexual metaphor is willingly abetted by the dynamic duo of Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding, better known as the hilarious literary terrorists Lip Service. Fox and Ryding are more usually to be found playing all the parts in their own lit-skits; here they have a real script and a company of actors to work with. But every aspect of the production is subjected to the Lip Service school of parody, a superabundance of sight gags and silly sound effects included.

While not a word of Wilde has been altered, Lip Service deliver every line as if embarrassed to do so. This neatly diffuses the more laborious passages of decadent wit – Till’s production remains astutely aware of the difference between dialogue and repartee and never lapses into the torpid prolixity that afflicts most Wilde revivals. This chaotic camp-fest is unlikely to appeal to everyone’s taste in classical theatre, but it’s invigorating to see playful subversion restored to an establishment figure who was born to be wild.”

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