Vaudeville Theatre, London – until 30 December 2017
They’re all at it. Michael Grandage at the Duke of York’s, Jamie Lloyd at Trafalgar Studios – it’s not enough to produce a play any more, nowadays you have to have a thematic ‘season’ with the same fingerprints all over it, so Dominic Dromgoole has taken a year’s lease on the Vaudeville to present four plays by Oscar Wilde ‘respecting the proscenium setting for which they were written’.
Of course, if he’d been more authentic in this endeavour he’d have hired the Haymarket where many of Wilde’s plays were produced and where, in 1893, he was commissioned by Beerbohm Tree to write A Woman of No Importance on the heels of his success with Lady Windermere’s Fan. Two things went wrong: one is that Wilde wrote a central character largely based on himself and which he knew the strait-laced Tree would find difficult to play – an immoral dandy whose outspoken opinions were designed to affront polite society.
Secondly, Wilde sought to further champion the cause of unmarried mothers shunned by society when men’s indiscretions were condoned – Wilde’s own father had several illegitimate children and possibly inspired the line ‘The only way to get rid of a temptation is to give in to it’.
This makes A Woman of No Importance the most Shavian of Wilde’s plays – in fact with a slight reshuffling of the cast the same company could present Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession also produced in 1893 and wherein the same issue of parentage is concealed from the upwardly mobile Evie, as it is from Gerald Arbuthnot by his self-sacrificing mother, played here by Eve Best, and roguish father (Dominic Rowan).
Best is a wonderful actress, striking, intelligent and resourceful and completely compelling as another over-protective mother in Rattigan’s Love in Idleness: but like Samantha Bond in 2003 is probably discovering you cannot breathe fresh life into Wilde’s weakest comedy, nor leaven the stilted lecturing of so much of the dialogue, particularly in the mouths of the token American – played pointedly by Crystal Clarke or the token bluestocking, played gamely by Emma Fielding.
The staging is crude, too many characters are ranged in an angular line across the acting area, one man drags off a deckchair for no apparent reason, and in an important and intimate moment with Harry Lister Smith as her son Gerald, Best is obliged to sit beside him on a doorstep where they look like a ventriloquist act.
Lister Smith by the way comes fresh from rough toilet sex with Josh O’Connor in the wonderful God’s Own Country.
Three-quarters of the action takes place under the watchful eye of Lady Hunstanton played with increasing insobriety but also declining energy by Anne Reid. The character’s forgetful battiness conceals some uncertainty with the lines, just as it did for Prunella Scales in the earlier production.
But Reid wins the audience’s hearts in the entr’acte diversions where, accompanied by a quartet of servant-musicians she delivers three Victorian music hall songs. When she first appears it’s rather like being invited to supper at Buckingham Palace and finding the Queen Mother played the banjo.
But it’s a welcome relief from four acts of pontification and laboured aphorisms that land about as well as James Corden’s jokes about Harvey Weinstein.
until 30 December
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