Lady Windermere's Fan, Market Drayton Festival Centre - review with pictures
There were so many ladies’ fans fluttering at Lady Windermere’s birthday ball it seemed as though the witty barbs hurtling back and forth across the stage would never find a target.
But like Mrs Erlynne, who thought she had no heart but found she had one, once the play found its emotional heart it hit home eloquently.
This was the first of Oscar Wilde’s social comedies, streamed live to the Festival Centre from the relatively small Vaudeville Theatre in London’s West End.
With the camera often in close-up it felt very cosy and as we became more engaged I couldn’t always tell whether the laughter was coming through the speakers or from the audience around me.
The male characters are a pretty laughable bunch: buffoonish, arrogant, naïve, ignorant – sometimes all at the same time.
Oddly they have some of the best lines, from Lord Darlington’s 'We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars' to Cecil Graham’s definition of a cynic ('A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing') and 'Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality'.
It’s the female characters who must guard themselves from the scandal and gossip and risk losing all if they take a wrong step.
Wilde’s glittering epigrams are in a sense a con trick – ensuring the morality at the core of his play is far from tedious while setting the cruel traps which only a moral act can unlock.
Following the Duchess of Berwick’s busy-body gossip about Mrs Erlynne ('Many a woman has a past but I am told she has at least a dozen, and they all fit') Lady Windermere comes to believe her husband is having an affair with her.
When Lady Windermere rushes rashly to the rooms of Lord Darlington, who has declared his love for her, it is Mrs Erlynne who sacrifices her reputation (again) in order to save her.
By then we, but not Lady Windermere, are savvy to the nature of the relationship between the two women. Mrs Erlynne’s reasons for keeping it secret give her noble actions a clever moral poignancy.
Grace Molony gives Lady Windermere a strongly self-satisfied priggishness at the start but carries us with her to a convincing heartfelt appreciation for Mrs Erlynne by the end. Samantha Spiro’s Mrs Erlynne moves likewise with conviction from mischievous vamp to an almost sacrificial lamb.
Jennifer Saunders’ Duchess of Berwick remains her splendid self throughout, even when commandeered by director Kathy Burke to do a bawdy music hall turn with three of the servants in front of the curtain while the scenery is being changed.
In Saunders’ hands ‘Keep Your Hand Off My Fan, Sir, it Doesn’t Belong to You’ fit the bill at the Vaudeville Theatre like a glove.
June 5 is the date to put in your diary for the next in the Oscar Wilde season at Festival Drayton. The cast of An Ideal Husband includes Edward Fox and Susan Hampshire.
By John Hargreaves