Vaudeville Theatre, London – until 7 April 2018
Beneath the artful fan-shapes of the set, gloriously coloured bustles and ruffles flit between black tailcoats and epigrams ping around the room like flicked rubber-bands. The real delight, though, is in the detail: as the Oscar Wilde season rolls elegantly on, it is Kathy Burke’s mischievous, witty direction (and wise pruning of some overlong Wilde persiflage) which brings this tale back to life.
There’s a wonderful fleeting portrait gag, a priceless unexpected hereditary snort, once a cheeky glimpse of homoerotic flirtation almost out of sight on the terrace and a cherishable entr’acte music hall number which Burke has lovingly written for Jennifer Saunders’ matriarchal monster. In which Ami Metcalfe in a maid’s outfit doing percussion offers the most suggestive deployment of a triangle yet seen in the West End.
It is fun, for all the melodramatic seriousness of the tale, and Wilde’s banked-down fury at the hypocrisy of his time. The lightness of touch keeps a modern audience enchanted, and enables us to suspend mere gawps of absurdity at the Edwardian concepts of female “ruin” (caught visiting a Man!) and the need for a once-fallen woman to claw her way back into the “society” of the frankly idle rich.
Tiresomely virtuous young Lady Windermere (Grace Molony) sees everything in black and white and is made suspicious of her husband’s calls on the elegantly cougarish Mrs Erlynne, little suspecting that the lady is in fact the mother she had presumed dead but who was that shocking thing, a bolter. Lord W – a nicely geeky Joshua James – is actually trying to save his wife from this fearful knowledge.
But it is Mrs E herself who, at the expense of her own social and economic ambitions, saves the naive young woman from repeating her error and running off with one of Wilde’s identikit, epigrammatic young lordlings. Who are, by the way, in the late night all-men scene, hilarious.
Key to the play’s success is of course the fallen woman, and Samantha Spiro is as magnetic as ever: sometimes brittle, a knowing cynic who has dyed her hair and made the best of her disgrace, sometimes defensive, but in the big, desperate scene with her daughter lets it all fall away from her to reveal naked, passionate self-sacrificing honesty. Her plea for the silly girl to go back to her baby silences the theatre. And one perhaps remembers that Wilde had a wife and children, and was to suffer the loss of them.