Vaudeville Theatre, London – until 7 April 2018
It has taken more than 20 years but Jennifer Saunders this week returned to the West End stage to make her mark in Lady Windermere’s Fan, the second major production in Dominic Dromgoole’s Classic Spring Co. Wilde Season.
It would be churlish not to applaud her decision to tread the boards again – but one wishes she didn’t do it so forcefully.
She gives an Ab Fab turn as battleaxe and gossip, the Duchess of Berwick, almost certainly a forerunner to Earnest’s formidable Lady Bracknell, but she steals every scene she’s in.
You can almost see other cast members slink into the shadows to defer to her overpowering comic talent.
But, occasionally, her performance is so over-egged that it looks as though she’s playing a character from a French & Saunders skit. There’s even the odd Edina mannerism thrown in.
Directed with broad strokes by Kathy Burke, Lady Windermere’s Fan provides for an enjoyable night out at the Vaudeville Theatre providing you like your Wilde more slapstick than subtle. Nuanced it is not.
Kevin Bishop, as the besotted Lord Darlington, does a very good impression of an early Harry Enfield while pretty much the entire cast ham it up, overdo the received pronunciation, and obliterate Wilde’s delicate and subversive commentary.
It is refreshing to see what a feminist Wilde was. Here is a social comedy (that’s light on laughs and plot, it has to be said) that worships womanhood.
He attacks society’s hypocrisy and moral double-standards with a flourish of well chosen epigrams with the best known equally shared between Berwick and Darlington.
Grace Molony plays the eponymous Lady Windermere who learns, on the eve of her birthday party, that her husband is the talk of London society for all the wrong reasons.
He has been spending time with a disreputable woman, Mrs Erlynne, and the gossip is that Windermere is her lover.
Appalled and disbelieving she confronts the young toff only to be ordered into inviting the scarlet woman to the party in the hope of it giving her an entree into polite society.
Of course, as per all Wildean comedies, misunderstandings abound. If only everyone told the truth from the outset there wouldn’t be half as much upset – but there would also be little to watch.
Samantha Spiro sparkles as the misjudged Mrs Erlynne whose reputation isn’t entirely undeserved. There is a bit of the dominatrix about her as she slickly manipulates and cajoles the menfolk to do her bidding.
Joseph Marcell’s wonderfully infatuated Lord Lorton laps up her domineering manner, positively purring at the gentle abuse and tough love.
David O’Reilly has some cracking quips and dialogue as party guest Cecil Graham and Gary Shelford adds colour to the stuffy upper echelons of London society as beaming Australian, Mr Hopper.
After making her considerable mark in the first half, Saunders’ Lady Berwick vanishes for the rest of the play.
So for anyone suffering Saunders’ withdrawal Kathy Burke has written a Good Old Days-type ditty, packed with double entendres, which the duchess performs during a scene change.
It may be fine for music hall – and was enjoyed by last night’s audience – but I hated it. It’s not particularly well sung and is completely at odds with the theme and style of the production.
Burke’s Lady Windermere’s Fan isn’t as funny or as telling as it should be but it’s a pleasant enough piece to attract fans of the genre.