It was Oscar Wilde’s first major theatrical hit, but Lady Windermere’s Fan is rather better known these days for its famous one-liners than its content. And “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” is an apt description for a revival which aims high enough, but never quite soars.
Wilde’s hugely contrived story revolves around secret payments which Lord Windermere (a genteel and restrained Milo Twomey) pays to Mrs Erlynne. As Lady Windermere begins to suspect foul play, she is encouraged by Lord Darlington (a foppish but rather timid Samuel Collings) to leave her husband and small child and run away with him. The problem is that Lord Windermere is so eminently sensible, it seems ridiculous that he would not just tell his wife why he needed to make such payments. Wilde simultaneously condemns Victorian society’s obsession with propriety and plays along with it.
Can Wilde have it both ways? Director Greg Hersov and Laura Rees as Lady Windermere seem unsure. In the first half in particular, Rees seems to struggle with her lead role; it’s a stiff, awkward performance which thankfully softens dramatically when she finds a kind of redemption.
Nevertheless, there is comedy in the protagonists trying to sort out the mess they get themselves into. Oliver Gomm teases out every last pound of humour from his society character Cecil Graham, and Bernice Stegers is on almost pantomime dame-esque form as the meddling Duchess who first suggests not everything is rosy in the Windermeres’ marriage. Her costumes are hilariously over the top - necessarily so because the set is curiously muted. Which, in the end, just about sums up this uneven revival.