A Woman of No Importance but, for my money, feels the more rounded and accomplished play; and while it also has a strong cast, it doesn’t depend on them as strongly to do a salvage job as the first in the season depended on Eve Best. Lady Margaret Windermere (Grace Molony) has been married for two years, and has failed to pick up on the hints everyone’s dropping that her marriage is the subject of much gossip. It’s only when the Duchess of Berwick (Jennifer Saunders) outright tells her that she learns her husband Arthur (Joshua James) has in recent months started to pay regular visits to a mysterious woman; a look through his bank book reveals he’s also been paying her large sums of money.
Of course all is not as it appears; Mrs Erlynne (Samantha Spiro) is actually the long-lost mother Margaret thought had died when she was a child, but who’d actually left her husband and consequently fallen from grace.
Mrs Erlynne has been blackmailing Arthur – she wants to be restored to polite society, or she’ll reveal the truth to his wife, devastating her. The next step in her social rehabilitation is to invite her to Margaret’s 21st birthday ball, but he’s unaware his wife has come to the wrong conclusion and plans to cause a scene. There ensues the inevitable comedy of misunderstandings as Arthur tries to keep his wife from leaving him without actually revealing why he's behaving unusually, and Lady Windermere discovers an unexpected friendship with the woman she thought she hated. But there’s also an air of what was, at the time, a genuine danger: If Margaret did leave her husband the consequences for her would be dire, and her secret mother is desperate to stop her losing her reputation like she did.
I had a definite sense of déjà vu as the clues were dropped about Mrs Erlynne’s real identity – I wasn’t 100% sure if I’d seen this play before many years ago and forgotten it, but I think it’s more likely that I was remembering sitting in the same theatre watching a very similar plot twist in A Woman of No Importance only a couple of months ago. I do think the story surrounding the issue of a woman cast out of polite society is better handled here though: Apart from a section in the third act where the men sit around trading aphorisms, the comic one-liners feel more integrated into the plot, and there’s more characters it’s possible to actually care about – like Joseph Marcell’s Lord Lorton, smitten with Mrs Erlynne and offering her a genuine way out of her predicament. Gary Shelford as a wealthy Australian and Natasha Magigi as a French guest at the ball make the most of small roles and add some outsider perspective to the English society rules of their hosts.
Not everything feels quite right– Spiro’s Mrs Erlynne absolutely captures the bubbly nature that instantly makes people who disapprove of her love her on first meeting, but there’s no real sense of the woman who would happily blackmail her son-in-law: Instead of thawing only when she meets her long-lost daughter, she’s a warm, kind presence from her first appearance. I also wasn’t sold on Kevin Bishop as Lord Darlington, largely because he tends to swallow the ends of his sentences so much of his dialogue wasn’t audible. But while there’s clearly an old-fashioned feel imposed on this Classic Spring season, Burke manages to add a few little touches that keep things from feeling too stuffy – like the embarrassing snorting laugh that mother and daughter share, or the clear dislike for his employers from the butler, Parker (Matthew Darcy,) who mocks Lady Windermere’s patronising request that he announce the guests clearly by over-enunciating all their names, and at one point can be seen in the background flirting with one of the male guests (Benedict Salter.)
Saunders is, of course, the big draw (or arguably her hat is,) and after a couple of decades away from the stage this is a role that eases her back in gently: Like Lady Bracknell, of whom the Duchess feels like a less extreme precursor, the character is essentially a cameo (she only appears in the first two acts, so she’s also given a song to cover a scene change and keep the star turn around for the second half) and Saunders is in her comfort zone but no less entertaining for it. Spiro rightly gets top billing though, the underlying sadness of the character one of the things that gives the piece a bit more depth than just a comedy of witty epigrams. Paul Wills’ set, with its fan motif appearing everywhere, is pretty but actually uncluttered enough to keep things flowing through the space briskly; it’s suitably indicative of a production that maintains a classic feel while avoiding stuffiness.
Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde is booking until the 7th of April at the Vaudeville Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.