Some plays are so constrained by one immortal line that it becomes virtually impossible to do anything new with the piece. Directors can either play safe and deliver that showstopper dialogue in the traditional manner or risk the wrath of an audience who will feel cheated by doing something radical.
For The Importance Of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde’s script is perhaps handcuffed by two simple words: ‘A handbag?’. For any actress the indomitable tone of Dame Edith Evans hangs over the phrase. The latest staging at the Riverside studios takes one extra step in overcoming the challenge by turning not only the phrase, but the whole show into a musical.
Traditionalists may throw their cucumber sandwiches down in disgust but Wilde’s eccentric comedy of class manners seems perfectly suited to the musical genre. The absurdity of the plot and the thin central premise that one chooses love purely on the forename of your partner provides ample material for tongue in cheek music and Douglas Livingstone’s book takes Wilde’s original as a strong foundation but adds a whole new dimension.
Adam McGuiness and Zia Moranne’s score has echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan but also embodies Wilde’s comedic spirit in what turns out to be a charming small scale chamber musical comedy.
Iqbal Khan’s production has moved the setting to the 1920s, a time where, though the social conventions are still very much in force, women are beginning to take a more dominant role. It initially seems an odd choice but it works in context. What in a straight reading of the play now seems somewhat dated, the musical numbers add an extra dimension, giving an insight into the characters as well as ample opportunity for comedy.
Not only is the immortal handbag turned into song we also get a delightful explanation of why young Cecily falls for the cunning Algernon (“Wicked”), a lustful explanation of the birds and the bees from Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble (“It All Began In A Garden”) and a lyrically dextrous plot resolution (“It Was My Muse”). A mix of duets, patter songs and even Rex Harrison-esque talking along to music provide a musical framework to the piece.
There are strong performance all round from the nine-strong ensemble. Colin Ryan and Mark Edel-Hunt provide the requisite stiff upper lips as Algernon and Jack while there is feisty independence from Anya Murphy and Flora Spencer-Longhurst and Gwendolen and Cecily.
Susue Blake’s Miss Prism almost steals the show with her barely repressed love for Edward Petherbridge’s Dr Chausuble and is a sheer delight when revealing Jack’s providence.
As is often the case though, it is the formidable Lady Bracknell that takes centre stage, despite being on stage for only a fraction of the evening. Here Gyles Brandreth takes on the regal majesty, an uncanny amalgam of Hinge and Bracket and Queen Mary. Brandreth’s cast iron Bracknell easily overcomes any doubt over gender.
Samal Blak’s simple but effective set provides an ingenious setting in the small Riverside Studio and it’s a pleasure to hear an acoustic, un-mic’d performance.
As Lady B herself may say, to miss one chance to see this inventive show would be a misfortune, to miss two would be carelessness.