I can't remember when I had a more enjoyable night at the theatre than our recent visit to the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, London, to see the new musical version of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Ernest with the absurdly talented Gyles Brandreth as the redoubtable Lady Bracknell...
Wilde's greatest play – throughout the evening, the brilliant (and justly famous) lines cascade like a shimmering of shooting stars – has been gently updated from Victorian society to the 1920s and embellished with musical numbers (by lyricist, Douglas Livingstone and composers Adam McGuinness and Zia Moranne) that capture all the wit of the original and drive the plot through a two-hour running time that whistles by with carefree abandon.
Just as My Fair Lady feels like the show George Bernard Shaw would have written if he had been making Pygmalion as a musical, this is unquestionably Oscar Wilde's all-singing (and, with the aid of some nifty choreography) all-dancing Ernest.
Directed by Iqbal Khan, it exceeded my expectations (and silenced a few nagging doubts) chiefly because the writers and cast treat the original with respect and love in equal measure and – cavorting in a stylised set (an array of luggage containing pop-up trees and bushes) that adds its own charm to the frothy proceedings – manage to convey the importance of personal and social identity underlying the frivolity and the playwright's ruthless mockery of the more absurd manners of his day.
The actors playing the quartet of young lovers – Mark Edel-Hunt, Anya Murphy, Colin Ryan and Flora Spencer-Longhurst – acquit themselves splendidly, despite having to share the stage with the scene-stealing Edward Petherbridge and Susie Blake as a shyly, slyly, flirtatious Dr Chasuble and Miss Prism; Stefan Bednarczyk, the show's musical director, as a brace of butlers (town and country); and Mr Brandreth's imperious juggernaut of a Bracknell – every inch a lady, with the regal ramrod uprightness of the late Queen Mary.
Despite the cross-dressing, Brandreth's Bracknell is absolutely not a pantomime dame, she is as far from the much caricatured Edith Evans portrayal as it is possible to get. The much-anticipated two-word line (one of the best-known speeches in theatre) is not only delivered with the appropriate degree of incredulity but is a prologue to a patter song about handbags that carries the moment to new heights of humour.
And when her ladyship tempers her sharply cutting comments with warm twinklings of care and compassion, it is impossible not to believe that beneath the steely exterior a few memories yet remain of the heart-flutterings of her own youth.
The Importance of Being Ernest only runs until 31 December: so book before the word gets fully out that this is the don't-miss show of the Christmas season – and if you can't book a ticket, well, then beg, borrow or steal one!
And while on the subject of Messrs Brandreth and Wilde, let me enthusiastically recommend Gyles' brilliant series of literary thrillers The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries, the most recent of which is Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders.
Photo: Clara Molden