Arriving so soon after the Rose Theatre’s production, another version of The Importance of Being Earnest may not seem an especially attractive proposition, despite the deep delight that Wilde’s classic comedy is still able to generate. But Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios are presenting an Earnest with a difference: a musicalisation of the play that boasts intriguing novelty-value casting, with Gyles Brandreth - actor, author, presenter and former Tory MP - taking on the role of Lady Bracknell. Directed by the versatile Iqbal Khan, attractively designed by Samal Black, and staged in the cosy confines of Riverside’s Studio 3, the production proves most enjoyable, and strong enough to engage even those viewers who may have felt that they’d had their fill of this particular play for a while.
Despite updating the action to the 1920s, a move that widens the piece's scope in terms of choreography and musical styles, Douglas Livingstone’s book sticks closely to the content and structure of Wilde’s play, offering no major changes or revisionist elements. This, coupled with the melodious but relatively reserved style of Adam McGuinness and Zia Moranne’s piano-centred score, initially makes the evening seem a little tame. Yet after a solid but somewhat sedate opening, in which Livingstone’s lyrics aren’t always quite Wilde enough, the production kicks into gear in its second half, which is a pure and unadulterated pleasure. Here, responding to the escalating comic complications of the plot, the tunes are stronger and the lyrics more biting and artful, with hilarious duets for those tentative would-be paramours Miss Prism (Susie Blake) and Dr. Chasuble (Edward Petherbridge), and for Cecily (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) and Gwendolyn (Anya Murphy) during their face-off over tea, as well as a nicely-judged nod to the play’s (much-debated) queer subtext in Algernon (Colin Ryan) and Jack (Mark Edel-Hunt)’s bachelor-bromance vaudeville number “On the Spree.”
The performances are thoroughly pleasing, too, with spot-on turns from Edel-Hunt as a very likeable Jack, and from Ryan as a louche Algernon. The chaps are well matched by Anya Murphy’s supremely pert Gwendolen, and by Flora Spencer-Longhurst, glowing and slightly gaga as Cecily. There’s characteristically fine support from veterans Blake and Peterbridge, and wry work from the production’s Musical Director, Stefan Bednarczyk, as the butlers Lane and Merriman. And let’s not forget Brandreth’s striking Queen Mary-modelled Lady Bracknell, a decidedly unfeminine creation with an especially fine line in imperious reactions, and a truly delicious delivery on the sly xenophobe’s ode to avarice “In the Funds.” All in all, a delight.
The production runs for 2 hours 10 minutes and is booking until 31st December. Further information here.