Surely no one goes to an Oscar Wilde play expecting to be surprised? The most that can be hoped for is that we get exactly what we expect: a comedy of manners that is hopefully not too mannered. But for this second production on the Vaudeville Theatre’s Wilde season, director Kathy Burke delivers a genuinely unexpected moment. Or rather, her star Jennifer Saunders does.
In Wilde’s 1893 comedy, written while staying in north England’s ravishingly beautiful Lake District, from whose towns and waterways Wilde plundered his character’s names, Saunders plays the pivotal Duchess of Berwick, who informs the hitherto serene Lady Windermere (a spot-on Grace Molony in her West End debut) that her husband (po-faced Joshua James) has been regularly seen in the company of Samantha Spiro’s scandalously unattached Mrs Erlynne.
Saunders – star and co-creator of Absolutely Fabulous – turns in the kind of comedy performance that makes you wonder why on earth she’s not on stage more often. Crowned with a hat adorned by a stuffed bird of paradise, she exudes Lady Bracknell levels of haughty disdain. But after doing her damage to the Windermere marriage, Wilde gives her little reason to remain on stage, which would leave Saunders’ fans feeling shortchanged. Burke’s solution works well. The director has written a music-hall-style ditty for Saunders to sing during one of the scene changes. Saunders speaks it rather than sings it, but she squeezes every suggestive drop out of the chorus, “Keep yer hands off my fan, sir.”
Wilde’s thin plot is the kind that relies on misunderstandings being uncorrected at every opportunity. It allows Lady Windermere to believe the (fake) news of her husband’s infidelity, and also Kevin Bishop’s Lord Darlington to make a perfect fool of himself with declarations of love for her. And with judicious cutting, Burke injects a pace to the evening that saves us from the chore of suspending disbelief.
Wilde’s themes of gender politics and power play have an unexpected potency thanks to today’s "me too" movement. Granted, they don’t have the power of Ibsen’s work, which Wilde repeatedly watched on this very stage. (Nor was that ever Wilde’s objective.) But there is substance to the audacity of Spiro’s middle-aged Mrs Erlynne, a courtesan who subverts high-society conventions with all the freedom of a roving bachelor. The sincerity with which she saves Lady Windermere from ruin saves the play from its own frivolity. Meanwhile, the Wildean wit and bon mots arrive in blizzards of sparkling repartee, which is exactly as you would expect.