Has Gyles Brandreth – witty man of many parts though he is – met his Waterloo (“the line is immaterial”) with this attempt to portray Lady Bracknell in a new musical version of The Importance of Being Earnest? Well, not quite.
But I have to say, speaking as a huge fan of his writing, that his performance is the weakest link in a production by Iqbal Khan that only achieves lift-off into unexpected enchantment in the second half when he is less of a presence.
Brandreth is the big box-office draw. There's even a bust of him in full Queen Mary drag in the foyer. He's not the first man to play Wilde's dragon-dowager (I have seen Bette Bourne and Michael Fizgerald bring an added terror to the role through their maleness.) But though he times the patter songs he is called upon to deliver (“Don't denigrate society/That's only done by the bourgeoisie/Who can't get into it”) reasonably well, he has none of that summary, dogmatic, scrotum-tightening sweep you expect of this iconic figure. He looks like a nice man in the throes of a sad Queen Mary complex; he sounds like a bad, baritonal and catarrh-ridden impression of Noel Coward; and by the end, he is radiating such vague, visiting-royalty benignity, you half expect his Bracknell to open her handbag and start distributing Maundy money.
It's a shame because this is a musical adaptation – by Douglas Livingstone (book and lyrics) and composers Adam McGuinness and Zia Moranne – that, particularly after the interval, shows a real talent for telling a story through the swiftness of witty song and that demonstrates the genuine benefits of transplanting the original in the breezy Charleston era (Flora Spencer-Longhurst is adorable as she fails to fight the urge to dance in “Wicked”, the anthem of Jack's ward Cecily).
The production, with musical arrangement and an arch pair of butlers from Stefan Bednarczyk (“A butler in a bachelor establishment/Must buttle with a subtle domination”) has handbags on its mind, with a droll design that emphasises left luggage and suitcases that open into dinky pastoral scenes for the move to the country. Susie Blake and Edward Petherbridge are sublimely funny as Prism and Chasuble, the latter all dotty distraction, the former a bulbous-eyed whirlwind of trapped novel-writing fervour as she sings about the “Muse that made me abuse my station/The very Muse that lit the fuse of my creation”. Recommended.