Thursday, 2 November 2017

Theatre review: A Woman of No Importance

Another day, another former Artistic Director of a major South Bank theatre launches his new commercial production company. Where Nicholas Hytner's unique selling point - a large-scale London theatre that's actually fit for purpose - is one I can see the need for, I can't say the same for ex-Globe boss Dominic Dromgoole's new Classic Spring venture: The idea is to present seasons of late-19th and early-20th century classics in the West End proscenium arch theatres they were originally written for (Jonathan Fensom's designs fairly lush but offering no surprises.) A Shaw season is coming up, but first a year-long residency of Oscar Wilde plays at the Vaudeville, which is what makes me wonder exactly what gap Dromgoole thinks he's spotted in the market: The inevitable conclusion next year will be The Importance of Being Earnest, at which point it'll be only three years since the play's last revival at the very same theatre. At least the opening production is of a play not revived anywhere near as often, although for too much of A Woman of No Importance it's obvious why.

In fact when it first went on sale I didn't think I would bother booking, until the casting announcement dealt a trump card: Who can resist Eve Best?

Best plays Mrs Arbuthnot, a widow who lives in the countryside and prefers to keep herself to herself, but has become a favourite of local society matriarch Lady Hunstanton (Anne Reid.) Through her Mrs Arbuthnot's son Gerald (Harry Lister Smith) has landed a prestigious position as secretary to Lord Illingworth (Dominic Rowan, struggling to create a character under the weight of his bon mots,) but when she meets her son's future employer she's horrified: He is Gerald's real father, who under his family name had an affair with her twenty years earlier, then refused to marry her; "Mrs Arbuthnot" is an entirely fictitious identity she's created to hide her shame, and now she has to find a way to stop her son leaving with a man she hates, without letting him know the truth.

This is an early Wilde play and one in which his signature light, witty style sits awkwardly with the melodrama that was popular at the time, and whose influence is particularly apparent in the second half. Dromgoole's cast is heavy on familiar faces from his time at the Globe as well as other dependable performers, but they struggle to save the first two acts in which Lady Hunstanton's guests (including Emma Fielding, Eleanor Bron, Paul Rider and Sam Cox) exchange opinions about the future of gender relations, while puritanical American Hester (Crystal Clarke, underpowered in what appears to be her stage debut,) quietly hisses her disapproval. A lot of Wilde's most famous quotes appear in A Woman of No Importance, and it does at times feel he's too busy being quotable to get on with the story.

It really is a case of Best saving the day, then, appearing near the end of the second act and finally kicking the play into gear. She's predictably excellent, arriving with an exhausted air of a broken woman but, as her worst fears come to pass, actually finding strength in her ability to stand up to Illingworth and ending the play defiant. Even her trademark laugh and connection to the audience return.

The arrival of his title character also makes a difference to Wilde's writing as it becomes darker - including the quiet background tragedy of William Gaunt's Reverend Daubeny, whose hints about his wife's rapidly deteriorating health fall on deaf ears. But it's in the main story where Dromgoole claws the attention back and Wilde demonstrates something of his writing ability beyond aphorisms, and after endlessly telling us how progressive about women's rights it plans to be it actually gets round to telling a progressively positive story, of a woman finding her dignity outside of the way society tells her she should. In a second half that, ironically, finds its feet by channelling those old melodramas Wilde sought to replace, Best helps snatch victory from the jaws of defeat; but it's left me no less sceptical about whether this season really has anything different to offer.

A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde is booking until the 30th of December at the Vaudeville Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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