Vaudeville Theatre, London – until 14 July 2018
Worth going to Jonathan Church’s latest Wilde Classic Spring revival if only for a feast of Foxes: patriarch Edward as old Lord Caversham and his real youngest son Freddie as his stage son Lord Goring. They do not disappoint, octogenarian Edward Fox doddering for England, a testy dinosaur but sharp as a tack on the Earl’s exasperated lines. Freddie Fox – lately so memorable as Wilde’s nemesis Bosie in The Judas Kiss – is perfect too as the dandyish heart-of-gold. Which is crucial, as Goring speaks for Wilde himself in both his flippant epigrammatism and his genuine plea for a life lived more by charity and affection than by impossible moral pieties, “pitiless in perfection”.
They’re a treat, those two, with on the press night an extra gale of affection for Fox junior when he strides across the gilded apartment to burn the blackmailer’s letter on a candle. Perhaps due to over-enthusiastic elf ‘n safety fireproofing, it failed to catch. And failed again, and nearly dowsed the candle. As he improvised “nobody can read it now” over the barely charred remains, he and Frances Barber’s malevolent Mrs Cheveley gallantly resisted corpsing. Almost.
But enough Fox-worship. More urgent in its Wildean philosophy than the earlier, larkier ones in the season, this is a fascinating and heartfelt play. It is serious, despite all the beloved absurdities, preenings, and wicked satires on high society prattle (Susan Hampshire’s monologue on modern dreadfulness is another veteran treat, showing the kids how it’s done). It is not mere social reputation at odds here, but the career of Sir Robert Chiltern: a rising politician who years ago founded his wealth and career (political careers cost money then) on leaking a Cabinet secret for money.
The adventuress Mrs Cheveley can expose him and wreck career and marriage unless he compounds the dishonesty by praising her South American investment which he knows to be a swindle. Nathaniel Parker carries the torment of capitulation and regret well, and Barber is a rattlesnake foe. Their encounter in the first act is electric, and the villainess’ confrontation with the wife -Sally Bretton -equally so. It is assisted by the way that Cheveley wears immense and truly menacing puff sleeves and the pious Liberal-Ladies-Club wife the demurest of white scalloped collarettes: Simon Higlett’s design is sumptuous but unfussy under a gilded dome, every detail elegant.
A bravo too for the melodramatic entr’acte fiddler Samuel Martin and the suavely intimidating Phipps the Butler (Sam Waller).And above all Faith Omole’s West End debut as Chiltern’s sister: she handles Wilde’s Benedict-and-Beatrice sparring with Fox beautifully, with an edge of defiant mischief he’d have liked.