Last year, Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios scored itself quite the sleeper hit of the festive shows with a hugely successful revival of Salad Days which was an absolute delight. This year, Carl Rosa Opera were booked in to bring their production of The Pirates of Penzance to try and recapture some of the same retro vibe but due to circumstances beyond their control, the show had to be cancelled. Stepping into the breach, as unlikely as it may sound, is a musical version of The Importance of Being Earnest starring no less than Gyles Brandreth as Lady Bracknell – something that promised to rather different to the Jane Asher-starring version that recently played at the Rose, Kingston.
Douglas Livingstone’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s classic retains much of the original, but re-sites the action into the 1920s. This offers a world of opportunity on the music and dance side, but also seems rather apt in terms of the increasing empowerment of women – though necessarily still limited – in dealing with their affairs. And the music from Adam McGuinness and Zia Moranne has a nice simplicity which never tries to do too much or make too much of an impact. For the songs really do serve an integral purpose here, taking advantage of our familiarity with the play to further build on and enrich these characters and scenarios to great effect.
Iqbal Khan’s production thus sings with clarity. Samal Blak’s simple set allows for an effective shift to the pastoral, Debbie Astell’s dignified choreography is delicately employed with restraint, but these just form the backdrop to a well-spoken, and sung, rendition of this play which is alive to the added value, both emotionally and comically, that the music brings. This is best exemplified by the young women: the excellent Anya Murphy as a wildly flirtatious Gwendolen and a persuasive Flora Spencer-Longhurst as a Cecilia longing for real experience – her song ‘Wicked’ provides real new insight into this take on the character – whose confrontation in the Hertfordshire garden is extremely wittily rendered in the pointed ‘Dear Friends’.
Though a big selling point here, it is often easy to forget that Lady Bracknell really isn’t in the play a great deal. Gyles Brandreth has taken Queen Mary as his reference point and it really does work. Finely upholstered in pinstripe tailoring, he glides around like a stately battleship and with a careful vocal performance and cleverly pitched delivery, he makes the most of all of Lady B’s withering lines. His songs tend towards the patter-style which suits his capabilities and it was altogether rather well done. Susie Blake and Edward Petherbridge as an adorable Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble really do great work though, their duet ‘It All Began In A Garden’ is a delightfully sweet take on the birds and the bees, but Blake is never better than in the hugely revelatory ’It Was My Muse’ which wraps up the story extremely neatly.
And rounding off the ensemble, Mark Edel-Hunt and Colin Ryan play the would-be Ernests with a nice toff-like sensibility, tempered with a little humour and even a vaudeville routine at one point, and Stefan Bednarczyk is excellent as a pair of wearied butlers, ever resigned to the madness of his masters. The occasional lack of vocal clarity, a couple of singers could do with a little more volume, is forgivable as the singing is all unmiked, which I loved, in the intimate Studio 3 at the Riverside which responds well to the piano-heavy music, MD’d by Bednarczyk as well. Rather unexpectedly, this is something of a charming chamber musical that ought to provide a slightly different bit of festive cheer to those that make the trip to Hammersmith.