Theatre: Singalonga handbag

Despite the flop of a recent Oscar Wilde stage biography, the appetite for his plays remains keen... with or without music.

YOU NEED precious little Italian to discern the play beneath Italian composer Castelnuovo-Tedesco's opera Il Mercante di Venezia. It's a trifle harder to spot the inspiration behind his little-known 1962 opera L'Importanze di Esser Franco. When everything else that Oscar Wilde ever did, said, wrote (and, possibly, ate) has been exhumed in the last few years, it is hard to believe that no one has seen fit to mount a revival of this adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest.

This (sadly) unpublished opera notwithstanding - and for reasons almost impossible to comprehend - there have been at least three attempts to turn the play into a musical. Is anyone willing to step forward to claim responsibility for the variously ill-fated Earnestly Yours (which included - I kid you not - "The Muffin Song"), Half In Earnest, or The Importance?

This last attempt (one hopes) starred Judy Campbell as Lady Bracknell and played London's Ambassadors theatre in 1984, but even the climactic and sublimely titled song "Born in a Handbag" and the fact that it was next door to The Mousetrap couldn't guarantee it anything approaching a half-decent run. According to a rare eye-witness report (there aren't many) it opened with the deathless lyric: "The importance of being Earnest/ Is something I'll never forget /The importance of being Earnest/ Is something I'll never regret", which suggests that all you need to write a musical is a rhyming dictionary.

Earnest, Wilde's theatrical masterpiece, is a comedy which depends upon the precise placement of its dazzling use of language. Borrowing a remark of Gwendolen's when faced with Jack's observation that he dislikes the name Earnest, "It has a music of its own. It produces vibrations." The entirely different rhythm of music is likely to upset Wilde's perfectly timed comic prose. There have been no less than three musical stabs at both The Canterville Ghost and Dorian Gray and the operatic versions of lesser-known plays, from The Duchess of Padua to A Florentine Tragedy are all generally filed under the heading "justly neglected". Richard Strauss is the only composer to adapt him successfully, but he was on safer territory with Salome, as it didn't present the insurmountable problem of the elegance of Wilde's wit or the timing of his comedy. Even in the original language Salome isn't famous for its jokes, let alone the German translation Strauss used.

Thus it hardly comes as a shock to discover that After the Ball, the 1954 musical of Lady Windermere's Fan by no less a figure than Noel Coward, staggered through a 12-week tour beset with casting problems and wholesale rewrites. Upon arriving in London, it lasted 188 performances before sinking without trace. Until now.

As part of the Coward centenary celebrations, the Covent Garden Opera Festival is mounting a one-off performance of Coward's original version, with a classy group of singers noted for their acting ability - notably, Marie McLaughlin, Linda Kitchen and George Dvorsky - plus conductor John McGlinn, the musicals specialist.

Among other delights, it will give theatregoers the chance to hear appropriate songs like "Oh, What A Century It's Been", the operatic "Lady Windermere's Aria" and the telling trio "Why Is It The Woman Who Pays?", whose first refrain begins: "Why are men permitted to sin and sin again,/ Say they're sorry and then begin again?/ Have they certain glands that automatically combust?/ Why is it accepted that they just must lust?"

The original show's director, Robert Helpmann - the former dancer who later terrified a generation as the childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - reflected that "everything Noel sent up, Wilde was sentimental about and everything Wilde sent up, Noel was sentimental about. It was like having two funny people at dinner."

Clearly, no true meeting of minds, hardly an accusation to be levelled at Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding, aka comedy duo Lip Service. Following their loving sideswipes at Shakespeare and Thatcher in Margaret I, Parts Two & Three and their award-winning Bronte Sisters homage Withering Looks, they've gone Earnest in one of two current revivals. As is their fashion - they've temporarily suspended their extraordinary two-person interpretation of King Arthur and the Knights of the Occasional Table - they are playing virtually every character in Wilde's play in Lawrence Till's Bolton Octagon production.

Purists will be gnashing their teeth at the mere mention of this, but they can take solace in Christopher Morahan's altogether more traditional approach. His Chichester company boasts the full complement of actors, headed by the redoubtable Patricia Routledge. If not exactly born in a handbag, one suspects she was born to play Lady Bracknell.

`Earnest', is previewing at Chichester Festival Theatre (01243-781312) and at the Bolton Octagon (01204-520661) from tomorrow; `After the Ball',

27 May, Peacock Theatre, London (0171-413 1410)

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