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Lady Windermere’s Fan at the Vaudeville, London – review round-up

Grace Molony as Lady Windermere and Samantha Spiro as Mrs Erlynne. Photo: Marc Brenner Grace Molony as Lady Windermere and Samantha Spiro as Mrs Erlynne. Photo: Marc Brenner
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Wilde’s in the West End. Dominic Dromgoole’s new company Classic Spring follows last autumn’s lightly appreciated, generally four-starred A Woman Of No Importance with its second major Oscar Wilde revival at the Vaudeville. This time, it’s his breakthrough 1892 comedy Lady Windermere’s Fan, in a production directed by Kathy Burke running until early April.

The big draw of Burke’s revival is the casting of comedy legend Jennifer Saunders in her first West End performance for 25 years. Saunders, a stalwart of screen comedy since the 80s, cherished chiefly for her sketch shows with Dawn French, is the fearsome Duchess of Berwick. She is a Wildean dragon who could give Lady Bracknell a run for her money.

Alongside her are two-time Olivier Award-winner Samantha Spiro, comedian and actor Kevin Bishop, and The Stage Debut Award-winner Grace Moloney, as well as Joshua James and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’s Joseph Marcell. It’s a starry cast, but not quite as starry as the last West End revival in 2002, which saw Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson star as mother and daughter together for the first time.

Can this cast of classy performers breathe new life into Wilde’s Victorian comedy caper? Does Lady Windermere’s Fan still make audiences chuckle 124 years after its premiere? Will Burke’s production be the big hit of Dromgoole’s season of West End Wilde? Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Lady Windermere’s Fan – Ladies’ man

Kevin Bishop as Lord Darlington. Photo: Marc Brenner
Kevin Bishop as Lord Darlington. Photo: Marc Brenner

With Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde switched from writing tragedy to comedy, sending up Victorian melodrama in a storm of farcical coincidence and withering epigrams. He earned himself his first big hit in doing so. Audiences loved it in 1892, but what do the critics make of it today?

“It is not as exquisitely constructed as his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest,” writes Lyn Gardner (Guardian, ★★★). “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.”

“Just as in its predecessor A Woman of No Importance, the threadbare plot does look rather spread thin,” concurs Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard, ★★★). “One feature of both works, however, stands out with appealing, fresh-minted clarity and that is Wilde’s affinity with women.”

“In a deeply uneven society, in which extra-marital sexual encounters make men adventurers and women outcasts, the sympathies of Wilde, the ultimate social rebel, do not lie with others of his gender.

“This production provides a reminder of how compassionate Wilde could be as a writer,” echoes Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★ ). “Beneath the quips, he had a huge heart and a keen eye, particularly when it came to the sacrifices and compromises women were so often obliged to make by society.”

Others agree, Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★) observing Wilde’s “shrewd empathy for the position of women and for the sacrifices and accommodations forced on them by polite society”, and Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★) noting that “this production, if not #metoo, feels very up-to-date.”

“It’s astounding that this script is 120-something years old,” chimes Adam Bloodworth (Metro, ★★★★). “Wilde rustles feathers with clever, tactful and gutsy representations of women, while the men are babbling buffoons. The women are funnier, too, whereas in the play’s only markedly all-male scene it is all ego and ignorance; their wars of words pitiful.”

Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★) has a slightly different take. “Oscar’s point about the priggishness of the Establishment,” he opines, “is one that applies as strongly to today’s Twitter-mob moralisers as it did to the fan-flappers of the late 19th century.”

Lady Windermere’s Fan – Just for laughs

Jennifer Saunders as Duchess of Berwick and cast. Photo: Marc Brenner
Jennifer Saunders as Duchess of Berwick and cast. Photo: Marc Brenner

Wilde’s play is splitting at the seams somewhat, then, but his sympathy and humanity as a writer still bleeds through the banter. Does Kathy Burke similarly succeed in finding the tears behind the laughs?

Not really. “The production only intermittently locates any memorable gritty emotion beneath the bon mots,” writes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★), and most reviews concur.

“Alas, Burke and Co. ratchet up the comedy just as Wilde is heightening the drama and sentiment,” explains Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★). “For me, this is where the production falls on the side of contradiction rather than counterbalance.”

“It is played first and foremost for laughs,” writes Tripney. “At times the production most resembles an extended French and Saunders sketch.”

“In playing so much for high farce, Burke loses the emotion that underlies the antics,” adds Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★). “The great, underlying compassion of the play is lost in its social manners. It is an enjoyable revival, but not a wholly satisfying one.”

This is “Wilde at his most frothily superficial” according to Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★). “The director doesn’t find a huge amount of emotional resonance. Saunders is the USP and also the wildcard in what is otherwise a gently amusing night that arcs to its happy ending with autopilot predictability.”

Some critics are fans, though. “The production has an air of elegance that it wears lightly,” praises Treneman. “The set, by Paul Wills, is of the period, but sparsely furnished. The backdrops, especially the belle époque glass fan wall, are impressive. The music adds to the general air of gaiety and Burke has succeeded in making the cast look as if they are having a blast.”

Some, though, are definitely not. “Burke makes the mistake of spotting and underlining the melodrama while failing to see that Wilde uses that merely as a springboard,” rants David Benedict (The Arts Desk, ★). “He was being flippant about serious things. The only serious thing about this production is how badly he and audiences are being served.” It is, he says, “a frankly lamentable West End production.”

Lady Windermere’s Fan – Lady Saunders’ fans

Jennifer Saunders as Duchess of Berwick and Grace Molony as Lady Windermere. Photo: Marc Brenner
Jennifer Saunders as Duchess of Berwick and Grace Molony as Lady Windermere. Photo: Marc Brenner

So, Burke’s production aims for comedy, but misses Wilde’s more sensitive side in doing so. Can her classy cast still nail the laughs, though? Does Jennifer Saunders succeed in her first West End role since the 90s?

Most critics think she does. “One aspect of this production at least is a failsafe tonic against the January blues: the mighty Jennifer Saunders, playing a battleaxe mother, harrumphing her way magisterially through some Wildean witticisms,” reports Mountford. “Fans will be well pleased, but saddened by the comparative smallness of the part.”

She’s “stonkingly good” according to Treneman, “joyously sassy” according to Bloodworth, and “extremely funny and entirely convincing” according to Crompton.

“Every scene she is in, Saunders steals,” writes Letts, before sounding a note of caution. “Given that a large percentage of the audiences seeing this show will probably go because of her name on the boards, such stage-hogging may be excusable. But it unbalances the production.”

There’s less certainty about the rest of the cast. Samantha Spiro is largely praised – she’s “deeply moving” according Taylor, “superb” according to Gardner – but a few critics wish she dug deeper. “Spiro’s Mrs Erlynne exudes a bright, feline sense of mischief but I wanted to see sharper claws, more alley-cat desperation,” complains Cavendish.

Most critics concur that Burke’s production suffers from an uneven set of performances.

“Saunders is in line for the John Lewis Award for being Never Knowingly Underplayed,” writes Benedict. “But at least she’s on the money in terms of hauteur and rank. That is more than can be said for the vast majority of the rest of the company, almost all of whom are miscast.”

Lady Windermere’s Fan – Is it any good?

Wilde’s first real hit might not be his finest play, but it brims with wisdom and wit, and offers a glimpse of his compassionate character, particularly when it came to women. Burke’s production is fun, most reviews say, and features a stonking, scenery-chewing turn from Saunders, but it loses something of Wilde’s sensitivity in its pursuit of laughs.

Three star write-ups abound, with a few four-star reviews and one particularly damning piece by David Benedict for The Arts Desk. It’s a safe, secure, but unsatisfying West End revival, then. Certainly not a wild ride.

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