Review: The Importance of Being...Earnest? (Pleasance at the EICC)
Updated: Jun 1, 2022
Be warned, this is a dangerous show. It involves no pyrotechnics. It has no elaborate stunts. It doesn’t even feature wild animals. No, the dangerous thing about this show is the audience participation. In The Importance of Being…Earnest? by theatre company Say It Again, Sorry?, Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy is falling apart before our eyes, and audience members are roped in to pick up the pieces.
When the actor for Earnest fails to appear, the first thing we need is someone to replace them. When the actress playing Gwendolen gets drunk, someone is needed to replace her, and so on. We become more and more familiar with the “director”, played by Josh Haberfield, who steps in whenever anything goes wrong. The variety of audience participation is impressive – someone has a phone rushed into their hands and must stay on the line to talk to an agent, someone is asked to write an impromptu review, someone else is asked to pen a love poem. The audience wait nervously to see if they will be called up, and what on earth they might be asked to do.
But for some of the audience, it might be more of a fearful wait than an eager one. The use of audience members is so extensive that standards begin to slip. Whilst two volunteers awkwardly exchange lines in their respective roles, a fight takes place as the real cast attempt to drag the original Gwendolen offstage. Entertaining though the fight is, its organised chaos is at odds with what appears to be discomfort from the volunteers as they try to keep their voices low and their eyes on the script. The mayhem also means that, for better or worse, the story of Wilde’s play is completely lost. It could have been swapped with literally any play with an ensemble cast and would have made just as much sense by the end.
Shows that rely on audience participation live or die on whether or not the volunteers are at ease. Even the shyest introvert can be brought out of their shell for a line or two if the atmosphere is supportive. Take Fringe regulars A Slightly Isolated Dog; their constant flattery of the audience and eccentric personas create an environment where volunteers can be sure that even if they make a mistake, they will be saved from embarrassment and applauded at length. Or a more current example, Tracey Boot’s Granny Smith at the French Institute this Fringe, where even though jokes are occasionally made at an audience member’s expense, it is all done from a character whose warmth outweighs her grumpiness. In the case of The Importance of Being…Earnest?, the volunteers are too heavily leant on and not seen to be given enough support. Even right off the bat, when seeking an Earnest, Haberfield has to take a seat and tell the audience that the show won’t start until someone is brave enough to raise their hand.
For some extroverts, the chance to contribute this much will be a dream come true. In fact, on this occasion, the volunteer asked to play Earnest was already familiar with the script and did a superb job. The premise of the piece has potential, but at present, it is too unpolished to be comfortable for most audiences. However, if you are daring enough, it could be the most fun you have at the Fringe this year. Three stars.
Whispers from the Audience: I liked being on the stage. I like the audience participation.