wed 24/07/2024

Lady Windermere's Fan, Vaudeville Theatre review - Wilde abandoned | reviews, news & interviews

Lady Windermere's Fan, Vaudeville Theatre review - Wilde abandoned

Lady Windermere's Fan, Vaudeville Theatre review - Wilde abandoned

Jennifer Saunders gets laughs, but Kathy Burke's lamentable production misses the point

'It makes Downton Abbey look like documentary realism': Jennifer Saunders and Grace Molony in 'Lady Windermere's Fan'All images Marc Brenner

Imagine, if you will, discovering a ninth-rate old melodrama about upper-class nonsense, hiring a bunch of actors including a couple of starry friends big in comedy and putting it on stage. And then realising there’s a paying audience so, to make it work, they’re going to have to ham it up to the hilt… Hang on a minute, Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan isn’t ninth-rate melodrama.

No, but that’s what it feels like in this frankly lamentable West End production. Kathy Burke has directed the plot but not the play.

Three years (and four plays) before he was notoriously dragged through the mud, Wilde was already writing about reputation and sacrifice. Young Lady Windermere (Grace Molony), who admits to having “something of the Puritan in me”, sees things starkly in terms of right and wrong and will “allow of no compromise”. Yet she promptly finds herself compromised twice over. First of all, the self-satisfied Duchess of Berwick (Jennifer Saunders) drops by to “sympathise” with her over the ghastly talk of the town: Lord Windermere’s affair with the vulgar Mrs Erlynne (Samantha Spiro, pictured below). Secondly, when, horrified by this dishonour, she finds herself abandoning him as she runs to her friend Lord Darlington (Kevin Bishop) who loves her.

Samantha Spiro in Lady Windermere's FanWhat she doesn’t know is the true reason for the seemingly disreputable connection between her husband and Mrs Erlynne, a circumstance derived from and engendering far more emotional upheaval than a mere affair. Emotions are gradually uncovered to the point of acts of desperation being considered by both women.

This is a play bound up in the rights and wrongs of appearance entirely predicated on rigid late-Victorian notions of status and, above all, class. In 2018 it is entirely legitimate to point out how stultifying those are, but for that viewpoint to appal the audience, the play’s concerns have to be given due seriousness and weight.

Burke makes the mistake of spotting and underlining the melodrama while failing to see that Wilde uses that merely as a springboard. His trick was then to use epigrams and verbal extravagance to say serious things. But Burke treats his lines like set-dressing, embellishments, when they are, in fact, the meat of the play embodying, as in Alice in Wonderland, the difference between meaning what you say and saying what you mean. He was being flippant about serious things. The only serious thing about this production is how badly he and audiences are being served.

Going into battle in the most extravagant costume and millinery, Saunders is in line for the John Lewis Award for being Never Knowingly Underplayed, but at least she’s on the money in terms of hauteur and rank which is more than can be said for the vast majority of the rest of the company, almost all of whom are miscast.

Instead of being principled but misguided, Molony’s Lady Windermere appears brittle and priggish. Molony is, however, constrained by the performances around her. Bishop (pictured below), who recently brought precision and energy to the otherwise disappointing Once in a Lifetime at the Young Vic, resorts to sub-Harry-Enfield posh and jolly when he needs to be winningly debonair for us to take their potential relationship seriously. Like almost all the men, he’s effortful when he should be easeful. Even the production’s presentation of class is off. The (invented) brazen insolence of the manservant and the maid gets the actors laughs but would more likely get their characters the sack. It makes Downton Abbey look like documentary realism.Kevin Bishop in Lady Windermere's FanHaving almost everyone play one-dimensional caricatures flattens the dramatic stakes and robs the play of depth. Burke encourages us to laugh at rather than with these characters so, when the revelations come, there’s absolutely no sense of having our opinions of them overturned. Yet this is a play in which a mother finally meets the child she abandoned 20 years ago. Ironically, for such a talky play, the real pain derives from feelings and facts that cannot be spoken about. There should be real emotional heft and, when directed and played well, the scenes of forbearance, misunderstanding and renunciation between them tear at the heart. But despite Samantha Spiro’s determinedly high-spirited work as Mrs Erlynne, her performance is never allowed to breathe so the only emotion elicited is sorrow that so strong an actor should be stranded in the wrong production.

It’s hard to decide which is the production’s nadir: the adding of a “naughty” song sung at the footlights to cover a scene change and to beef up Saunders’s cameo role thereby completely wrecking any dramatic flow; or the “comic” moment when Lord Darlington crosses the stage to stand in front of his own portrait in – hold my sides – the same pose as the painting.

If you want to pay between £19.50 and £75 for what amounts to added extras, don’t let me stop you. But if you want to get any sense of what Wilde was really doing with the play, stay home and read it: It’s online. And it’s free.


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