Appearances can be deceptive. That, of course, is one of the themes of Oscar Wilde’s 1892 play about young Lady Windermere, who flees her own birthday party because she mistakenly believes her husband is having an affair with Mrs Erlynne, a woman with a past. Wilde’s play, which borrows from the conventions of Victorian melodrama and never entirely subverts them, offers its own deceptions, too. It is not as exquisitely constructed as his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, which will be produced later this year as part of the same Oscar Wilde season in London’s West End. 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.
This is an uneven production, directed by Kathy Burke, but it has its moments, most particularly when Samantha Spiro’s Mrs Erlynne, discovering an unlikely capacity for self-sacrifice, sadly observes how easily love is killed. Dripping charm and diamonds, Spiro is superb as a scarlet woman doing unarmed combat with Victorian moralism. There is a real sense of desperation behind her pasted-on smile.
The women fare best. The Duchess of Berwick is Lady Bracknell writ light, and can be turned into a monstrous star turn, but Jennifer Saunders – returning to the West End for the first time in more than 20 years – does something subtler with the role. She offers a gently simmering comic portrait of a woman so bound by the conventions of her class that she has become a bit of a joke, perhaps even to herself.
Lady Windermere begins as a little prig. But Grace Molony mostly gets the measure of her, suggesting a maturing girl who suddenly glimpses the cruelties lurking beneath society’s civilised veneer when it comes to the treatment of women. Burke offers a nod to current debates around misconduct with the interjection of a witty music-hall style number about sexual predators. The servants are quirkily interesting, too: Ami Metcalf plays Agatha, a girl who is never allowed to say a word, and doubles as Rosalie, a maid who uses her tongue as a form of rebellion.
Matthew Darcy is terrific as the butler who sees everything and turns the hypocrisies of polite society to his own advantage. But the men are mostly dull company. Kevin Bishop’s Lord Darlington is about as dangerous as a neutered tomcat and approaches the famed line “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” like a jockey facing Becher’s Brook for the first time. Joshua James tries to inject some character into the wet Lord Windermere, but gets absolutely no help from Oscar.
Another great stylist, Noël Coward, observed that wit needs to be a glorious treat, like caviar, and never spread around like marmalade. Wilde almost scuppers his drama by making it so sticky with bons mots that it becomes a series of quotations rather than a play. But when he shows us his heart and his compassion for Mrs Erlynne it is like glimpsing a snowdrop peeking through a snowdrift, and is unexpectedly moving.