Saturday 24th February 2018 at The Vaudeville Theatre, London.
A period satire directed by Kathy Burke and featuring Jennifer Saunders? What luck! Kathy Burke’s production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (part of the Vaudeville’s Oscar Wilde season) is wonderfully light-hearted and a pure gift of escapism.
Most importantly, Wilde’s many, many chortle-inducing lines are flawlessly landed throughout and aside from the star power of Saunders and Burke, this production boasts a brilliant cast with sharp comic timing and an apparent affinity for the style of a period piece like this. Many a production team would consider modern revisions but this production from Classic Spring Theatre Company is presented with lovely authenticity; there are no modern intrusions, just an excellent handling of brilliant writing and it very much feels like a heartfelt tribute to the original from Burke.
The narrative is also, thankfully, an interesting one which positions itself as both a good story with real heart but also primarily a farce of sorts as wires are crossed and ridiculous characters are glorified. With a solid story defying predictability at the centre of everything, there’s not much that can go wrong…Grace Malony takes the title role as Lady Windermere – a new, young bride whose life is turned upside down by a hideous discovery. Led to believe that her adoring husband is being unfaithful with a woman of poor reputation, Lady Windermere’s actions are rash and dangerous for a woman in her position. Molony looks perfectly innocent and juvenile as Lady Windermere in over-sized dresses and pastels and is endlessly infantilised by her husband as the pretty little child she apparently is.
But while Lady Windermere is very much a sheltered ‘proper lady’ of the time, she has standards, and rejects the artificiality of male flattery – particularly the kind offered with hilariously over-done gravity from the likes of Lord Darlington, played by Kevin Bishop. She is a ‘good woman’; meaning simply that she is not seen to misbehave or challenge conventions publicly, though she does have notions ahead of her time. The second act sees less humour in her story as her fear overrides her initial attempts at raging indignation, and Molony delivers with both.Jennifer Saunders plays the larger than life Duchess of Berwick. I won’t lie, I was expecting a variation of her haughty character in Blandings with only a bustle and gown between the two roles, but Saunders’ Duchess is more Lady Crawley with undertones of comic desperation to have her daughter succeed in social circles and marriage. Though the Duchess is undoubtedly a cleverly planted comic device, she does have heart and Saunders does achieve both well – but it is her classic comic facial expressions, awkward physicality and funny voices that really shine here. Her hilarious rendition of the naughty parlour song ‘Don’t Touch My Fan, Sir’ – penned by Burke herself – is a thoroughly entertaining show-stealing scene full of Saunders magic.
Ami Metcalf plays the Duchess’ burdened daughter, Lady Agatha. Poor Agatha never gets a word in, though her helpless reactions to her mother’s over-bearing nature give rise to generous laughs. Burke’s decision to have Metcalf double as the surly cockney maid, Rosalie, is a stroke of genius; subtly toying with the fourth wall to allow the actress cheated of lines as Lady Agatha a moment’s glory as a starkly different character – a release of sorts for the repressed girl!A cast like this shouldn’t be summed up in a line or two, so, onwards! Joshua James’ performance as the wronged clown type is both funny and tragic – mostly both together, and he provides some wonderful moments, particularly with his outraged physicality in the scene of the fan discovery. His heart is worn on his sleeve and he carries the weight of secrets with hilarious trauma. Meanwhile, Lord Lorton, played by the talented Joseph Marcell, is equally besotted with the idea of a good woman by his side. However, much to our amusement, his desperation to have a good woman makes him deluded when it comes to his love interest; if a woman can explain away a perceived misdemeanour, Lord Lorton will fight her corner to the death. Marcell’s self-assured performance secures big laughs as Lorton’s gullible proclamations are delivered with such absolute conviction.
Kevin Bishop’s Lord Darlington is a strong and consistent source of comedy too – tragically lovesick and full of grand proclamations, his dramatics are hilarious and Bishop is a joy to watch. David O’Reilly’s Cecil Graham is all of us on so many occasions in this play and he encapsulates the true genius of Wilde’s social critiques; Graham doesn’t talk scandal, he merely basks in gossip – his chief object is to nose into the business of others, particularly if drama is promised. O’Reilly’s performance makes the character both memorable and beautifully representative of the true nature of society – we are all gleeful observers of the lives of others – why else does theatre exist?The real star turn in Burke’s production though is Samantha Spiro as the misunderstood and ahead of her time Mrs Erlynne. Spiro’s stage presence is instant and a constant – the character may have gravitas, but Spiro has more. Very much a challenger of norms and full of rejection for the judgement of others, Mrs Erlynne is a survivor of momentary poor judgement and while there are snickers and side-eyes directed at her from all areas of every room, she glides around in her gorgeous gowns, casting her spell over the men-folk and killing the women-folk with kindness of impressive pseudo sincerity. The poignancy of Mrs Erlynne’s Story is not so well delivered as the comedy, but there is definitely room for sympathy and sentiment when it comes to her character.
Wilde’s characters in this play are so beautifully written, with such clever comedy woven into their skin and with clear heart at the centre of each but it is at times difficult to focus on the more serious messages within the satire. There’s mockery of gender expectations and the suffocating social expectations of society, but there are also heavier messages about motherhood, repression and the helplessness of a woman’s lot – whatever her class. Burke’s production nods at the serious undertones but very much basks in the mocking social deconstructions within Wilde’s eloquent and smarting humour.Designer Paul Wills captures the period well, with ornate furniture placed sparingly around the stage for the Windermeres’ house, before an altogether more sumptuous abode appears as we find ourselves at Lord Darlington’s home. My one criticism of this production is the use of the curtain to mask set changes. It’s a dated and static device and although it worked beautifully in the second act as Saunders appeared for her ditty – harkening back to the charm of vaudeville music halls – in the first act, there seemed to be a missed cue at best or some glaring missed opportunities at worst.
The curtain came down without warning and there was an awkward extended silence before cast members appeared to walk across as if towards the Windermere house. But in that lapse, the uncertain audience had begun to murmur and chat, with some thinking that the interval had begun – it’s such a shame to see such a great opportunity for easy comedy go unexplored. Why only those few guests? Why not a parade of rushing, bustling guests all heading to the Windermeres’, each with their own moment to raise laughs? For such a beautifully slick production from a great comic talent like Burke, I was disappointed with this avoidable loss of momentum.I will here confess that I have neither seen nor read anything from Oscar Wilde before seeing this production (I know, I know – I am thoroughly ashamed). Thanks to Burke’s delicate handling of truly brilliant writing and intelligently observed comedy, I now declare myself an instant fan.
More than a sweeping period play, Lady Windermere’s Fan is a gently staged piece which seems to proudly place itself as a sincere period production which courts comedy with confidence and a keen eye. No gag falls flat and no witticism fails to hit the mark – the snatches of sentimentality compliment a solid narrative rather than appearing for sentiment’s sake alone – it’s an excellent production. Do I recommend? Absolutely, my dear child!
Lady Windermere’s Fan plays at the Vaudeville Theatre until April 7th 2018 and you can get your tickets here!