James Quinn will literally be in two minds in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at Manchester’s Royal Exchange.

For the veteran comedy actor will be playing two roles - Lane and Merriman - in the classic comedy.

James Quinn and the cast of The Importance of Being Earnest in rehearsal (Picture: Joel C Fildes)

“The production is still very much in the spirit of Oscar Wilde,” said James. “It’s just been re-set in modern times. The whole thing about this play is that you forget how witty it is, just line after line. That’s been totally retained, all those lines are in there.”

In the original version, James’ characters Lane and Merriman are butlers to two of the main protagonists - Jack and Algie.

“In our version, Lane is more of a family friend who looks after Algie and puts up with his excesses,” said James. “He’s quite posh I suppose and isn’t exactly subservient to him.

“Merriman is a gardener but he’s been put upon to do lots of other things.

“Lane is more tolerant but with Merriman the idea is that he was a gardener at Great Bridgewater before he retired then got offered the chance to work on this wonderful estate. At the interview it might have been mentioned he might have to do the odd thing on top but he wasn’t really listening.

“But they have him doing all sorts of things which as a master gardener he feels are beneath him.

“Having two characters to play is great fun - playing multiple characters is something I have always done from my first job at the Dukes in Lancaster in the Eighties when I was in Catch 22. I think I had five different roles in that production.”

The Importance of Being Earnest has been described as one of the five greatest plays in the English language.

Parth Thakerar, Rumi Sutton in rehearsal at The Royal Exchange (Picture: Joel C Fildes)

“It is brilliantly written,” said James. “Wilde observed that when people are trying to be serious they are trivial and when they are trying to be trivial that’s when they become their most interesting and that is a feature of the script.”

Director Josh Roche has retained much of the original play but given it a contemporary feel. Jack and Algernon are rich but unfulfilled and are determined to try and break free from this seemingly perfect life.

“What I find interesting about this play is that it is so universally known,” said James. “People know it is funny and providing we execute it well, which I think we will, they won’t be disappointed. It appeals to different age groups and different types too which is always good.”

James is no stranger to working at the Royal Exchange. This will be the fourth production he has been in.

“The last one was The Day We Sang, the Victoria Wood musical,” he said. “That was a wonderful show.

“But I love the Royal Exchange and I think it’s very useful to have worked here before as you understand the entrances and the exits and the specific way of working at the theatre.”

Manchester born and bred James has worked on stage and on TV. He is one of the driving forces behind JB Shorts, live theatre which brings new work to the stage.

“In 15 years I think we have done 24 of them now,” he said. “I was asked to write a short play for the first one when someone dropped out at the last minute and have been involved ever since.

“We approach writers mainly of TV dramas to come up with something. Although they are great writers, their ‘day job’ means they are always going to be subservient to the show and never get to write an ending.

“We did the first series of six plays in the basement of the Joshua Brooks pub and it went so well we decided to do another.

“We’ve now got a new home at 53 Two and the next series will be in October.”

For many people James will be best known for playing Phil, one of the two inept policemen in the cult comedy Early Doors.

James Quinn (left) in the stage version of Early Doors at The Lowry

A slow burner, the show written by Craig Cash and Phil Mealey, ran for two series in 2003 and 2004. Then in 2018 it was brought back as a stage show.

“There are two categories of people with Early Doors,” said James. “They’ve never heard of it or they love it. It’s quite low key and rather like the Royle Family which Craig Cash also wrote, it’s both very funny and very moving.

“The response to the live shows was incredible. We ended up doing an arena tour which is so unusual for a comedy play but it actually worked well.

“Early Doors is probably the favourite TV thing I’ve done and the stage show is probably my favourite live thing.”

The Importance of Being Earnest, Royal Exchange, Manchester, until Saturday, July 20. Details from www.royalexchange.co.uk