Lady Windermere’s Fan is probably the best play Oscar Wilde wrote for female actors looking for complex parts to play. There is an abundance of them and this revival lets Samantha Spiro and Jennifer Saunders shine as the stars they truly are. Played more as a farce than a comedy of manners, it fizzes, rather than explodes, with humour. Spiro brings emotional depth to the proceedings too and seeing her in action allows a glimpse of how the play might be more fulfilling.
When it comes to Oscar Wilde, casting, rather than timing, is everything. His plots, characters, and dialogue call for precision, wit and style. Not every actor is suitable for Wilde, and Kathy Burke’s revival of Lady Windermere’s Fan, now playing at the Vaudeville Theatre, demonstrates that with startling clarity, particularly when it comes to the many men.
Kevin Bishop, perhaps concerned with the need to be thought of as a serious actor rather than a comedian, makes a stodgy plum pudding out of the part of Lord Darlington when what he should be serving up is a light but impressively tasty soufflé. It’s a hard role, full of some of Wilde’s most famous bon mots (“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”) but played with effervescent zest and sprightly acuity, like Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest, Darlington can steal the show.
Bishop is too morose, too heavy-handed. It’s a great pity – and a surprise – because he can be an astonishingly good comedic performer as his turns in Fully Committed and Fat Pig have demonstrated in the past. He would have been far better suited to the role of Lord Windermere as Joshua James’ lamentable (but thoroughly predictable) portrayal of that role constantly demonstrated.
Wilde’s play is a clear criticism of the rules and expectations of the society in which he lived, worked, was both adored and persecuted and, eventually, after self-inflicted tragedy, died. This play, perhaps more than any of his others, is full of heart and, like A Woman Of No Importance, which was the first in the Classic Spring Theatre Company’s Wilde season, demonstrates Wilde’s great love and admiration for women. It’s always clear where Wilde’s sympathy lies.
This does not mean, however, that he only writes great parts for women. That he does it true, as Lady Windermere’s Fan vividly establishes. But, across the board, with one exception, the male performers here give little life and interest to their skilfully written characters. Certainly, James made nothing of Lord Windermere, content to make him effete, hand-wringing and wet. There was nothing about the portrayal which could begin to convince that Grace Molony’s bird-like Margaret, Lady Windermere, would love and respect him as much as the text requires in order for the central conceit to work.
Gossip is a key character in the plot. Society A listers all think that Lord Windermere is having an affair with and lavishing money and gifts on Mrs Erlynne, a woman who has returned to London from abroad, attracting the attentions of the wandering eyes and hands of well to do men, and the ire and contempt of the matriarchs who preside over Society gatherings and events. When Margaret thinks she discovers the truth about the affair, she flees her marital home. But some farcical nonsense with her fan, and a very great sacrifice from the misjudged Mrs Erlynne, sees bliss returned to the Windermere family. Mrs Erlynne goes off into the sunset with the fan, a photograph and, quite possibly, a new husband or benefactor.
Key to it all are two things: that is is possible, perhaps likely, that Mrs Erlynne and Lord Windermere could be having an illicit affair; and that Margaret is spirited and self-assured enough to walk out of her marriage. As to the first, it is always wholly unlikely here that Samantha Spiro’s alluring and confident Mrs Erlynne would ever spoil her satin sheets with James’ wet Windermere, for any amount of money. As to the second, Molony’s Margaret is too tepid, too squawking, too limp, to convince as a decision maker or even as someone you want to barrack for from the stalls.
To be fair to Molony, there are moments of great joy in her portrayal, especially in her exchanges with Jennifer Saunders’ marvellous Lady Berwick and her final scenes with Spiro, from whom she can take – because it is freely given – real support. But when she has to fall back on wet Windermere and dull Darlington for support, and there isn’t any, her character seems lost, uninteresting, and sadly unlikeable.
Nor is there much help from any of the other men. Roger Evans, Joseph Marcell and Benedict Salter all deliver flat stereotypical caricatures of little interest so Mr Dumby, Lord Lorton and Sir Royston all count for nothing. David O’Reilly finds slightly more life and charm in Cecil Graham but he is too ponderous with the lines to let them hit their marks effectively. Gary Shelford is endearing as an out-of-place Australian, but his prime purpose seems to be to feed laughs about kangaroos to Saunders’ virtuoso comic portrayal of Lady Berwick, a woman who must certainly be related to Jack’s Aunt Augusta from Earnest.
Only Matthew Darcy, as Parker, the Windermere butler, brought any sense of wry originality to the men. His arch and judgmental announcement of the arrival of guests was cleverly done. He has an intimate moment on the balcony with one of the male guests which detracted not a bit from the main action but which, in a calculated and clever way, underlined the hypocrisy of the Society in which Mrs Erlynne and the titular fan have their work cut out for them.
Saunders squeezes every laugh out of every line she has, and then a few more. Eschewing the haughty old dragon approach, she opts for the gagging-for-scandal, ample-bosomed, finger-on-the-pulse matriarch with a twinkle in each eye and a nose for other people’s business. She does marvellous twitching work with her closed mouth, indicating either horror or delight while pretending not to notice. It’s very funny to watch Saunders in action live on stage, a place where she feels naturally at ease despite all her years away from it.
Her punitive treatment of Amy Metcalf’s Agatha, for whom she is desperate to secure a suitable marriage, sees Agatha with no voice. Metcalf is delightful in this role and garners sympathy with ease. The flip side is that when Metcalf doubles as Rosalie, the maid, she never shuts up. It’s beautiful work and again sees the women mining Wilde’s deep veins of comedy for the real gold.
But the lame duck men, despite getting the lion’s share of Wilde’s witty lines, cannot, individually or collectively, match Saunders’ Titanic (pre-iceberg) stage presence. The action positively wilts when she is not present, which is often. Spiro comes to the fore in the scenes Saunders does not dominate which is just as well.
Perhaps recognising the audience’s likely addiction to Saunders, Burke, following a tradition established in the company’s previous production, interpolates a music hall number, the sole purpose of which is to give Saunders another starry moment. She takes it, and it is humorous and musical enough although, in truth, it adds nothing but time to the production. Happily, though, there is only one such interlude rather than the interminable number that blighted A Woman Of No Importance.
Much like that play, Lady Windermere’s Fan can only work with a truly gifted actor in the key role. In the last production, it was a marvellous Eve Best and here it is a glittering and bravura Spiro. She never puts a stockinged foot or a gloved hand wrong; she uses her beauty and grace like a light to attract Male moths and then traps them like a seasoned Black Widow. Style and substance dominate her characterisation – and she covers up the deficiencies in her fellow cast mates with immaculate good grace.
Spiro never lets her character’s internal fires rage out of control, although the pain she feels seems visceral, and it is heartbreaking to watch her win the day on her own terms, knowing what the consequences for her would be. It’s a really terrific performance from an actor who is not seen on our stages enough and should be. Terrific in every way.
Paul Wills opts for a pastel ice-cream cake motif for the design, happily emphasising that this play is one of Wilde’s confections. The transformation to Lord Darlington’s dour, whiskey-soaked Male retreat is nicely done and, of course, the balcony windows in the Windermere home remind one constantly of the fan which is of such importance to the plot. Everything looks good, and even better in Paul Keogan’s lighting, which always ensures the right mood is set by the ambience.
There is some good music composed by Shane Cullinan which, contrary to some specially composed incidental music for West End stages, delicately complements the stage action but never seems tiresomely intrusive.
Burke’s direction is brisk and clear, but the casting (Matilda James) of the male roles leaves her with little room to excel. With a decent male cast, one that could match Spiro and Saunders at least, this could have been a sensation. Instead, it is genuinely diverting but instantly forgettable. Like a good cupcake.