Right across the street from Charing Cross station at the junction of the Strand with the pedestrianised Adelaide Street there's a coffin-like structure topped by a sculpture modelled after the head of Oscar Wilde by sculptor Maggi Hambling. It's called 'A Conversation with Oscar Wilde', and invites you to sit on the smooth stone surface he is positioned atop to talk to him. It is inscribed with a Wilde quotation: "We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars."
It stands as the first public monument dedicated to the playwright and poet; and appropriately, a minute or two down the Strand, the Vaudeville Theatre is now home to a smart and handsome revival of the play that the line comes from: Lady Windermere's Fan, presented as part of a year-long season dedicated to four of his major plays, with other side attractions.
In other words, we are being invited to view Wilde's individual works in the context of the others he wrote; and though for me a little walk on the Wilde side goes a long way, this sparkling production by the actor turned director Kathy Burke at first amused, then fascinated and finally gripped me.
Yes, some of the characters and their cut-glass accents are a bit hard to take, spouting their Wildean aphorisms and waiting for the smug laughs to land. But there's a pulsing heart to this society comedy about keeping secrets and maintaining illusions, and that's a portrait of a young marriage that's put under intolerable strain when, just two years in and with a 6-month old baby, the wife suspects her husband of having an affair.
In fact the suspicion is entirely misplaced; the husband is actually trying to protect his wife from a family secret. To say more would be to give it away; but the actors playing them and the other woman in this fraught triangle bring such truth and conviction to their roles that they make you believe the high stakes involved.
Grace Molony, in only her second stage role after winning The Stage Debut Award for her first post-drama school outing in a play at Chichester last summer, is spellbindingly fresh and vulnerable as Lady Windermere, opposite Joshua James as her earnest husband. Samantha Spiro as Mrs Erlynne, around whom the big secrets of the play revolve, is both formidable and heartbreaking in her sacrifice.
There are also two star turns from two actors best known for their television comedy work: Jennifer Saunders, returning to the theatrical stage for the first time in a quarter of a century when she appeared just down the street at the Stand Theatre (now the Novello) in a comedy called Me and Mamie O'Rourke alongside her TV sidekick Dawn French, does an imperious turn as the Lady Bracknell-like Duchess of Berwick. Kevin Bishop is more interestingly disguised as another aristocrat on a mission of his own.
Lady Windermere's Fan Tickets are available now.
What the popular press said...
"It is not as exquisitely constructed as his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, which will be produced later this year as part of the same Oscar Wilde season in London’s West End. But there is a delicacy beneath the play’s creakiness and its avalanche of epigrams; a great revival can cut through the brittleness to reveal genuine feeling."
Lyn Gardner, The Guardian (three stars)
"It’s serviceable enough as a fun night out, then, and fans of Saunders would be mad to miss it, but I’d prefer a production which, to borrow a line from the play, more keenly reminded us we are all in the gutter even as it tantalised us with its star."
Dominic Cavendish, Telegraph (three stars)
"There are some lovely bits of business in Burke’s production – two men sharing a furtive and lingering cigarette, for example – but she allows the tempo to drop at points."
Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard (three stars)