It takes confidence to tinker with Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Earlier this year, LKT Productions relocated it to a council estate in the north, an occasionally ingenious conceit that didn’t quite deliver.
Now, Two Gents distils the essence of Wilde’s play into an entertaining two-hander, with a little help from the audience, some cucumber sandwiches and an iPhone.
Two Gents’ freewheeling adaptation is rooted in an energetic South African theatre tradition. It honours Wilde’s dialogue, but plays fast and loose with the delivery.
The backdrop looks homemade and there are only a few props. Ayesha Casely-Hayford and Kudzanayi Chiwawa divide all the characters between them, lending an unexpected immediacy to the narrative. Wilde’s comedy has never felt so improvised, an effect heightened by the way the pair share the role of Lady Bracknell. The production also makes good use of audience interaction.
With the house lights up throughout, the piece has the feel of a workshop, but Arne Pohlmeier and Tonderai Munyevu’s steady direction gives it clarity and focus. It helps that Casely-Hayford and Chiwawa are a mesmeric double-act, fusing their own easy, natural style with Wilde’s rich, epigrammatic text.
There are several moments of real comic delight, including a hilariously passive-aggressive face-off between Gwendolen and Cicely. Lady Bracknell, meanwhile, has been inventively re-imagined as a domineering Zimbabwean matriarch and, while liberties have been taken with the play, Two Gents’ version also respects the subversive streak that epitomised much of Wilde’s life and work.