tue 21/05/2024

Lady Windermere's Fan, King's Head Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Lady Windermere's Fan, King's Head Theatre

Lady Windermere's Fan, King's Head Theatre

Oscar Wilde's comedy of Victorian morals receives an uneven update to the 1930s

Ellie Nunn as Lady Windermere and Ruth Redman as Mrs ErlynneAll photos by Roy Tan

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” declares Lord Darlington in Act II of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. He’s the classic Wildean cad - unprincipled, facetiously witty and in this production, possessed of the vilest pencil moustache, and yet the playwright gives him the most memorable line of the whole play. Why? To demonstrate that nobody is too completely good or bad not to be redeemed by beauty.

irst performed in 1892, Lady Windermere’s Fan was Wilde’s first society comedy and its success set him on the way to becoming one of the most popular playwrights of the age. It’s a play written about high society that was to be watched by the very people it satirised. Sparklingly funny and packed with paradoxes, it has serious undercurrents, as each character in turn is forced to compromise their ideals and abandon their morals for one reason or another.

Graham Hoadly as Lord Augustus in Lady Windermere's FanThe action revolves around Lady Windermere, a society hostess about to throw a ball to celebrate her twenty-first birthday. However, she soon discovers that her husband (whom she married for love) has been paying vast sums of money to a Mrs Erlynne - a woman who is the subject of much society gossip for the frequent visits she receives from various different men. Believing she has lost her husband’s love, Lady Windermere flees into the arms of the wholly unsuitable Lord Darlington, and only the most dexterous of plot-twists can rescue her.

This production transplants the play from its original Victorian setting to the 1930s (something which was also done in the 2004 film adaptation A Good Woman, starring Scarlett Johansson). In this case, aside from introducing occasional slightly self-conscious musical numbers, it’s hard to see what this adds to the play. Graham Hoadly's performance of “And Her Mother Came Too” (pictured above right) is pleasant enough, but sits oddly amid the rest of the action. Another more positive alteration is in the interpretation of Lady Windermere. Director Linnie Reedman chose to give the character more bite, moving away from the prudish, Victorian traits hinted at by Wilde.

Jo Ashe as the Duchess in Lady Windermere's FanPlayed here by Ellie Nunn (daughter of Trevor), Lady Windermere becomes confrontational and often authoritative, enabling us to see more clearly her transition from simpering moraliser to a pragmatist capable of keeping even the darkest secrets. Nunn’s range is impressive - she brings comedic touches to the simple action of sprawling on a sofa or pouring a drink, but retains enough gravitas to make her character’s emotional nadir convincing. She is ably supported by Ruth Redman as the sensuous, conniving Mrs Erlynne, while Jo Ashe (pictured above left) delights as the archetypal society scandalmonger, the Duchess of Berwick.

That said, the ensemble is rather uneven. Wilde’s prose is at its best with a rhythmical, crystal-clear delivery, and both Ruari Cannon as Lord Darlington and Nathan Lubbock-Smith as the drawling Cecil Graham fall short on this front, with the consequence that some of the play’s best lines are thrown away. Plots and shifting morals aside, the real genius of this play is in its words, and as such we cannot afford to lose a single one.

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