The Theatreguide.London Review
Vaudeville Theatre Spring-Summer 2018
Like A Woman Of No Importance, Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband is a serious play disguised as a light comedy. But in this case the disguise is so good that you might not even notice how serious he is behind the mask.
A rising-star politician's career is endangered when a villainous woman threatens to expose a scandal from his past unless he give his public approval to a crooked financial scheme she's involved in.
To complicate matters the man's wife is a prig and moral absolutist who believes the slightest stain makes a person unfit for society, so his marriage is also under threat.
Will a couple of convenient coincidences and the intervention of a sympathetic friend rescue him? (Spoiler alert: of course.)
So Wilde is saying some serious things about the wrongness of unforgiving moral absolutism and of judging someone by one perhaps irrelevant weakness or misstep. (And yes, of course there's a lot of special pleading relevant to Wilde's own life here.)
But while A Woman Of No Importance was comic in the first half and serious later, An Ideal Husband is candy-coated throughout with Wilde's trademark wit and aphorisms, and with some light farce and situation comedy.
At one point a character plays a whole scene for the benefit of someone he believes to be eavesdropping. Someone is eavesdropping, but we know it's not the person he thinks, and so everything he says digs him ever deeper in trouble.
Performances in this production directed by Jonathan Church vary in inverse proportion to their centrality – that is, the peripheral characters are more successful than the main ones.
The roles of the politician and his wife are written as wooden – he stalwart and she priggish – and neither Nathaniel Parker nor Sally Breton is able to bring them alive.
Frances Barber gives the evil woman a lot of life, but perhaps too much. The woman surely should have a veneer of civility that makes the occasional slipping-out of her nastiness all the more shocking.
But Barber plays her like the villain in a bad melodrama – if she were a man she'd be wrapping her cape around herself, twirling her moustachios and chuckling fiendishly.
Freddie Fox plays the helpful friend (the Wilde avatar) a bit too young for my taste (We're told he's 34), so that he sometimes comes across as a callow youth way out of his depth rather than a wise counsellor.
He could of course be both, but Fox has trouble making the two sides seem part of the same man, though the boyish half does allow for some delightful touches of panicky physical comedy.
The characters around the edges of the story generate a string of delightful cameos.
As the Freddie Fox character's disapproving father, Edward Fox (yes, real-life father and son playing father and son) brings his flawless and seemingly effortless poker-faced dry wit to a string of insightful put-downs that make his every entry onstage a welcome event.
Looking absolutely no older than when she was in TV's Forsyte Saga almost five decades ago, Susan Hampshire uses her charm and intelligence to turn the obligatory Dotty Old Lady into a Wise Old Lady whose beautifully-timed observations and delivery win Hampshire the evening's one spontaneous burst of applause on her exit.
And newcomer Faith Omole is delightful as the young woman who loves Freddie Fox's character and waits patiently for him to figure out that he loves her.
Jonathan Church's direction exposes a structural weakness in Wilde's text, in that the playwright repeatedly and artificially manipulates entrances and exits to leave only two people onstage to have a conversation.
And Church has trouble with those two-character scenes, too often just planting his actors in one place to speechify at each other, so that key dramatic moments like the blackmail scene or the politician's turn to his friend for help are static and talky.
My criticisms are cavils. When the production stays out of Wilde's way, and when the comedy overrides the drama, An Ideal Husband is a lot of fun.
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