Dare one tamper with a classic? That was the question facing writer Douglas Livingstone and composers Adam McGuinness and Zia Moranne when they decided to transform The Importance of Being Earnest into a musical. Theatre rewards boldness and, with My Fair Lady as lodestone, they realise their ambition magnificently at The Riverside Studios (until 31 December).
In the intimate space of Studio 3, Iqbal Khan's tight direction sharpens the barbs, bon mots and bitching as identities are concealed, concoted and confirmed in Oscar Wilde's dazzling comedy of manners. As the young lovers, Mark Edel-Hunt, Anya Murphy, Colin Ryan and Flora Spencer-Longhurst have their work cut out to hold their own against old hands Stefan Bednarczyk, Susie Blake, Edward Petherbridge and, as Lady Bracknell (surely the part he was born to play) one Gyles Brandreth!
It is the music that lifts this version of the old favourite from the very good to the outstanding. By setting the story in the 1920s, a wide range of musical styles are called upon from the gentlest of Noel Cowardish love songs ("The Girl I've Yet To Meet") to Fred and Judyish Swellsing ("On the Spree"). Cecily's explanation of her instant falling for Algernon ("Wicked") is a high point, but even that is topped by Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble's coy confession of late-blooming love ("It All Began In A Garden").
Looming over the lovers, like an ocean liner amongst skiffs, is Gyles Brandreth Lady Bracknelling for all he's worth, smirking and smiling as the young lovers first invite his/her disdain, then distress before the discovery of Jack's parentage sets the world to rights. We get full value for "Handbag" and then some, as the celebrated line is extended into a song.
The Importance of Being Earnest is probably so clever and so embedded in our theatrical culture that it could stand up to any amount of abuse, but the sympathy, respect and affection shown to the original by this new musical is evident in every word and every note. If you've never seen Wilde's masterpiece, this is a great place to start: and if you have seen Wilde's masterpiece, this is a great place to see it again - anew.