The defining characteristic of Dominic Dromgoole’s Oscar Wilde season so far has been its almost defiantly old-fashioned approach to staging the plays.
While his production of A Woman of No Importance benefited from a wonderfully warm performance by Eve Best and Kathy Burke’s frothy take on Lady Windermere’s Fan felt like one long French and Saunders skit, Jonathan Church’s An Ideal Husband feels like it’s going through the motions.
It’s capably played for the most part but has barely any perceptible pulse. A shame, as it’s one of Wilde’s tautest plays. Government minister Sir Robert Chiltern (Nathaniel Parker) has built a career and a fortune on secrets he sold and shares purchased when he was starting out. He’s being blackmailed by the scheming Mrs Cheveley (Frances Barber), who has come into possession of a letter that could ruin him.
The production’s big selling point is the casting of Edward Fox opposite his son Freddie Fox. Fox senior plays the Earl of Caversham, Fox the younger his son, the Viscount Goring, a typical Wilde dandy who delights in all things trivial and refuses to take life seriously.
In truth, Edward Fox doesn’t have a huge amount to do though he’s immensely watchable when on stage. The role of Goring is far larger and Freddie Fox eats it up. He’s on fine form here. He wakes the production up whenever he’s on stage, but it never feels as if he’s stretching himself and there’s little sense of what finally propels him to settle down with Robert’s sister (Faith Omole).
Barber plays Mrs Cheveley like a purring panto villainess in a series of gorgeous gowns. Next to her, Parker’s subtler performance gets lost. Sally Bretton, as Robert’s wife Gertrude, who clings to the idea that her husband is morally unimpeachable, has little to do but looked pained.
An Ideal Husband is a play that explores hypocrisy and corruption, moral complexity and the potential for redemption. In so many ways it’s a play for today, or could be made to feel that way, but the production seems content to raise a few knowing chuckles before bringing on Susan Hampshire for a cameo.
Wilde’s epigrams are delivered with a customary zing, they’re great lines and they do their job, but this remains a wearyingly comfortable and bloodless production. It’s not exactly slow but nor does it ever vary its pace. The safety curtain descends (slowly) during scene changes and there’s some inoffensive violin playing. Simon Higlett’s gilded set, all gilt and velvet, shimmers prettily while also looking rather flimsy.
While the Classic Spring season was never meant to be about wheel-reinvention – quite the opposite – Church’s production makes Wilde feel cosy, clubby and safe. And that’s a real shame.