The first production from director Dominic Dromgoole’s Classic Spring company, and the first in a tantalising year-long Oscar Wilde season at the Vaudeville Theatre, gets off to a fairly impressive, but not quite knock your socks off, start with this handsomely mounted production.
Dromgoole has assembled a super cast for a play that starts in familiar Wilde territory of the well to do at a country house party batting the author’s witty social observations back and forth, but then flips into melodrama as the story unfolds.
To be honest, plot-wise, not much happens for the first half an hour or so and it feels a bit like Oscar’s greatest hits as the barbed comments zing. But with a cast that includes Anne Reid as hostess Lady Hunstanton, Dominic Rowan as the absolute cad Lord Illingworth and Eleanor Bron as Lady Pontefract — fussing over husband Sir John (Sam Cox) — timing the lines to perfection, it’s still very entertaining. And the presence of feisty young American Hester Worsley (Crystal Clarke) not being backward in offering her own observations on English society gives proceedings an extra frisson.
The story finally takes off when Lord Illingworth offers young Gerald Arbuthnot (Harry Lister Smith) the position as his secretary, which the young man gleefully accepts. As way of celebration Lady Hunstanton invites the boy’s mother Mrs Arbuthnot (Eve Best) to the house to dine.
But with her arrival, secrets are revealed that threaten to damage Gerald’s opportunity and drive a wedge between mother and son.
Eve Best as Mrs Arbuthnot (all photography Marc Brenner)
Eve Best is wonderful and heartbreaking as the woman trying to protect her beloved child from a past that she has managed to keep hidden for twenty years but also giving him the chance to fly. It’s a performance that could so easily tip over into scenery-chewing melodrama, but in the hands of one of our finest stage actors is nuanced and perfectly judged.
The production feels a bit clumsy at times and with a cast of sixteen, although not all on stage at the same time, there are some blocking issues on the small Vaudeville stage with characters coming on and lying awkwardly on the floor.
There are nice turns from Emma Fielding as the flirtatious Mrs Allanby, Paul Rider as lecherous MP Mr Kelvil and a hilarious cameo from William Gaunt as a bumbling cleric.
It’s not a perfect start to a year of Wilde, but the quality of a top-notch cast ensures this is nothing less than entertaining.
A Woman of No Importance is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 30 December