Dominic Dromgoole has launched his year-long residency at London’s Vaudeville Theatre in fine style. Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance, which opened this week, features an impeccable ensemble, a jolly story and plenty of fabulous Wildean declarations.
Eve Best gets to play a fallen woman, Dominic Rowan is a cad and a bounder and Anne Reid is on sparkling form with a host of brilliantly funny one-liners.
The success of this, and I suspect the other treats lined up by Dromgoole’s Classic Spring Company for its year of Wilde, will depend entirely on how you rate the playwright.
I’m a huge fan of Oscar although his dialogue can be frustrating. Pretty much every line uttered by his protagonists (particularly Rowan’s misogynist, Lord Illingworth) are highly quotable pronouncements about his own personal views rather than conversational speech.
This is Victorian melodrama at its best with a smashing set designed by Jonathan Fensom that takes full advantage of the traditional proscenium stage and gives the production a classic, provincial, feel.
It’s a mystery why the play is one of Wilde’s least performed. It wickedly satirises the upper classes while also having a poke at the pretensions of American nouveau riche society, which is never a bad thing.
And, while its critics may wonder what relevance a play written in the 1890s has to modern life then I defer to its dialogue. The sexual abuse of working women by the rich and powerful is, sadly, all too prescient today.
The story does take a while to get started but that allows some of its characters to establish themselves and declare their interests.
Set in the sumptuous home of the widowed, Lady Hunstanton (Anne Reid) we see her friend, Lady Caroline Pontefract (a delightful Eleanor Bron) holding court, sewing, and offering an opinion about everything.
There’s a running gag throughout the comedy concerning her and her poor, henpecked, husband, John, whose life is made a misery by his wife’s “good” intentions. Judging by the guffaws I heard around me on opening night it is a scenario recognised by a good many spouses.
Pretty soon the country house set are gathered. Illingworth, the blackguard, is flirting outrageously, egged on by a mischievous Mrs Allonby (Emma Fielding); the eccentric, but later, quite piteous clergyman, Reverend Daubeny (William Gaunt sporting, for some reason, an eye patch) is making the best of things and the younger set are all being terribly amusing.
It isn’t until the late arrival of Eve Best’s Mrs Arbuthnot that secrets begin to reveal themselves.
Her young son, Gerald, (Harry Lister Smith, with quite eccentric hair, who seems to have slipped out from a rival Wodehouse production) has been offered a place working for Illingworth.
Rachel Arbuthnot is appalled. Turns out that the aforementioned rogue once seduced her with terrible consequences.
The haves and the have-nots, the moneyed and the working classes, the snobs and the virtuous, are all exposed here
with director Dromgoole having fun with the wicked as he does with the sainted.
Dominic Rowan makes a scintillating scoundrel, effortlessly denouncing women and bragging about his success in bed, with no more than a hint of a sneer curling from the blighter’s lips.
But it is debatable whether, with even the advantage of this stellar casting, which includes having Anne Reid sing for her supper during scene changes, the production has the power to be a commercial success in the cutthroat West End.
A Woman Of No Importance runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until December 30 but, if you can’t get tickets, the production is being broadcast live from the Vaudeville Theatre, to screens around the country, on November 28.
A Woman Of No Importance features a star ensemble, Oscar Wilde’s rapier wit and a glittering production, but is it enough for the cutthroat West End?