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An Ideal Husband, Vaudeville Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

An Ideal Husband, Vaudeville Theatre

An Ideal Husband, Vaudeville Theatre

A glittering Wildean gem for the festive season

Moustachioed splendour: Lord Goring (Elliot Cowan) charms Miss Mabel (Fiona Button) Nobby Clark

Directing an Oscar Wilde play is rather like being a chaperone at a party: at best you are invisible, at worst actively intrusive. Marshalling Wilde’s politicos, dandies and duchesses through this latest ball of An Ideal Husband, Lindsay Posner is quick to lose himself among the elegant riot of gilded sets and gorgeous dresses.

Faithful to the letter (pink-papered, naturally), the production plays it straight, relying on the skills of a splendid cast to save it from straying into the limp pastiche of amateur dramatics.

Weightier than either Lady Windermere’s Fan or A Woman of No Importance, and less dazzlingly polished than The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband is an awkward dramatic creature. Whether it is a political drama masquerading as a drawing-room comedy or vice versa, its two registers must somehow be made to coexist in a tightly scripted world that leaves little space for directorial digression or inspiration.

It’s an issue of scale, and one that Posner and his team come close to solving through carefully judged exaggeration. We open with Stephen Brimson Lewis’s lavish vision for the Chilterns’ Grosvenor Square home, a fanfare of golden domes, pillars and alcoves that doesn’t so much scream wealth as mutter it in a decorous undertone. For the ensuing melodrama to work, the material stakes have to be high indeed; with the aid of Joan Hughes’s costumes, we are left in little doubt of the privilege of the gorgeously plumed inhabitants of this gilded cage.

The sartorial attention to detail is minute: the infamous Mrs Cheveley a kingfisher-blue glint among the muted pastels of her fellows, sporting “far too much rouge and not quite enough clothes” for the company; languid dandy Lord Goring a moustachioed vision in a series of pale-blue and maroon suits, with the further assistance of appropriately “trivial” buttonholes. What a shame then that in the delicate fabric of Wilde’s dialogue there was a six-inch tear courtesy of more stutters and stumbles than a provincial ingénue.

Samantha_BondWhether it was press-night nerves or the want of a few previews, there was a tension to the first-half dialogue that blighted the careful rhythm of Wilde’s prose, failing to frame its wit with the fluidity it deserves. There was a marked shift both in pace and energy after the interval, a promise of things to come, but little consolation for the previous hour’s verbal warm-up.

Stumbles aside, this is a dream cast. Samantha Bond’s caressing huskiness was made for the menacing Mrs Cheveley (pictured right), a woman who pilfers jewels and private correspondence with equal ease, and shakes hands with the outstretched arms of a duellist about to open a bout. Knowing and yet cheapened in her knowledge, Bond is a delicious villain. Matched for commitment by Rachael Stirling’s Lady Chiltern, “pitiless in her perfection”, their coded confrontations of Act One enjoy some of Wilde’s most acerbic dialogue.

Veterans Caroline Blakiston (as the splendidly unreconstructed champion of Old Values, Lady Markby) and Charles Kay (all expostulation and whiskers as the Earl of Caversham) were in danger of walking off with their respective scenes, but were gamely challenged by their younger counterparts. A beautifully judged Mabel Chiltern (“I have no character at all”) came courtesy of Fiona Button, whose silken repartee flowed as elegantly as her skirts.

Investing Lord Goring with a degree of physical comedy unheard of in Wilde, Elliot Cowan makes a splendidly lived-in hero. With a vocabulary of sighs, hunches, shuffles and facial acrobatics (not to mention a fluting falsetto) he finds the human whimsy that is crucial to a figure who on paper is little more than an articulate mouthpiece.

An Ideal Husband will never make an ideal play. It’s tone is too uneven, its conflict too Victorian to really translate into satisfying drama. Yet if Wilde has taught us anything it is that felicity is a more than adequate substitute for profundity, a lesson that Posner and his cast have embraced in all its glossy, glittering superficiality.

Samantha Bond's caressing huskiness was made for the menacing Mrs Cheveley

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