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A Woman of No Importance
I remember a few years' back, Peter Brook's letter to the Open Space awards mentioning that many of Shakespeare's best lines had sadly become cliches. So it is with Wilde's best lines that they are as often quoted out of context as in his plays. So here was an opportunity to hear them in context and in a Victorian proscenium arched theatre that they were written for.
Lady Hunstanton pronounced Hunst'on (Anne Reid) is entertaining the landed gentry on the terrace at her country house. Lady Caroline Pontefract opens the show played by Eleanor Bron as a haughty English aristocrat who fusses over her husband Sir John (Sam Cox) like a mother hen. There is a young and rich American heiress Miss Hester Worsley (Crystal Clarke) visiting. Of the assembled aristos, Mrs Allonby (Emma Fielding) is the most attractive, the wittiest and the most rebellious and not curtailed by the presence of her husband. Lord Illingworth (Dominic Rowan) is the man of substance who is taking under his wing a young man as his secretary. The secretary, Gerald Arbuthnot (Harry Lister Smith) has no family to recommend him but a willingness to please.
With the first act doing little more than to establish the snobbery of the English upper classes, "One never met anyone who worked for his living," observes Lady Caroline, the audience is left at the close of this act wondering what the main thrust of Wilde's play will be. While the set changes from the Gothic perpendicular windowed exterior to the drawing room, Lady Hunstanton will sing "A Boy's Best Friend Is His Mother" accompanied by assorted servants and a visitor on musical instruments. We are told that after dinner the men will smoke cigars in the billiards room while the ladies take coffee in the drawing room.
"How can a woman be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly rational being?" quips Mrs Allonby flirtatiously delighting in being unpredictable. These aphorisms are sparkling examples of Wilde's wit but even grouped together they do little in this play to build character which is what we need to empathise and engage with the people. The American girl, dubbed a puritan, apologises for having told us the sins of the parents are rightly visited upon the children but it's still hard to like her.
Lady Hunstanton's friend and Gerald's mother is Mrs Arbuthnot (Eve Best), whom she tells her friends is a simple woman from another social class; she calls on Lady Hunstanton after dinner. The additional characters in this play, while delivering isolated amusing lines do not interact with the real story. There is the clergyman the Reverend Daubeny (William Gaunt) whose wife has seen better days, Lord Alfred Rufford (William Mannering) who appears hung over but does nothing else and Mr Kelvil MP (Paul Rider) whose main part is for Lady Caroline to persistently call him by the wrong name Mr Kettle and who may sidle up to women in a suggestive way.
The Victorian melodrama kicks in when it is revealed that Mrs Arbuthnot and Lord Illingworth have an unsavoury past. Eve Best tries hard as the wronged woman who has brought her son up on her own but this is not Wilde's best comedy and all the directorial talent of Dominic Dromgoole, the beautiful costumes and sets cannot disguise the weakness of the plot to twenty first century minds. Now we know why A Woman of No Importance is rarely revived.
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A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde
Directed by Dominic Dromgoole
Starring: Anne Reid, Eleanor Bron, Emma Fielding, Dominic Rowan, Eve Best
With: Meg Coombes, Sam Cox, Phoebe Fildes, William Gaunty, Tim Gibson, Will Kelly, Harry Lister Smith, Crystal Clarke, William Mannering, Paul Rider, Sioned Jones
Design: Jonathan Fensom
Lighting Design: Ben Ormerod
Sound Design: Carolyn Downing
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0330 333 4814
Booking to 30th December 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 16th October 2017 performance at the Vaudeville Theatre, The Strand, London WC2R 0NH (Rail/Tube: Charing Cross)
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