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A production of no importance

Review by David Munro

AS I left the Theatre Royal Haymarket I wondered why anyone had thought it necessary to give another production to this very second rate Wilde play and bring it to the West End.

Although it contains many of his best loved bon-mots, the plot is melodramatic and fustian in the worst of Victorian taste, and some of the lines - "Stop, Gerald, stop! He is your father!" and "Child of my shame be still, the child of my shame" - are simply risible, even when uttered in the context of a good production of the play.

Written for Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, in 1893, and originally played at the Theatre Royal Haymarket to which it now returns, it was at the time a great success. Despite this, it has never had the popularity of some other Wilde plays and there have been few notable revivals, and this is no exception.

This production, as does the play, stands or falls on the character of Lord Illingworth, the seducer of Mrs Arbuthnot and the father of the dramatically restrained Gerald.

The programme note says Wilde and Tree fell out over Tree's interpretation of the part, but I doubt whether even Wilde could have found any witticisms to redeem the character as portrayed by Rupert Graves. He is, I regret to say, hopelessly miscast, and even manages to kill the remark about foxhunting - the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable - which one would have thought today, in view of the current debate on the subject, would have brought the house down; it passed unnoticed.

He rattles off his epigrams without any style or aplomb and any laughs he does get are more due to Wilde than his delivery of them.

He emphasises the more- than- paternal affection of Illingworth for Gerald rather unnecessarily and makes the character even more unlikeable than the part is meant to be.

Occasionally, in the scenes between him and Samantha Bond, as Mrs Arbuthnot, he gives an inkling of how good he might have been in the part, but not enough to save the evening. The slap across the face he receives from Bond at the end of the play seemed more like a rebuke for his performance rather than for his treatment of her.

Bond's performance also fails to convince, but in her case the fault lies at the door of the author, who gives her, apart from those I have already quoted, the most unbelievable rhetoric to utter.

From her first entrance, clothed in black, she seems to have walked in from some sub-Ibsen melodrama and her playing of the final scenes both with Julian Ovenden, as her son, Gerald, and with Rupert Graves do nothing to dispel the illusion.

Wilde distributed the good lines and his views of marriage and society among the other women in the cast, chief of whom were Caroline Blakiston, as Lady Caroline Pontefract, Joanne Pearce, as Mrs Allonby, and Prunella Scales, giving a good impersonation of Dulcie Gray, as Lady Hunstanton, the hostess at whose home most of the action takes place.

These three, together with Elizabeth Garvie, as Lady Stutfield, garnered the majority of laughs, although sometimes with some difficulty as the production, by Adrian Noble, called for them to indulge in what, were they not so accomplished, might have been described as overacting.

The other major female character in the cast, Hester Worsley, a visiting American, was nearly made believable by Rachel Stirling, although the stereotyped priggishness of the role ultimately overcame her. A pity, as Miss Stirling gave a likeable performance and brought a lightness of touch to the part, which bodes well for her future in the theatre.

Most of the male characters other than Lord Illingworth and Gerald, are ciphers, but Peter Cellier, as the Archdeacon Daubeny, whose wife was apparently stricken with every disease or misfortune imaginable, made his few appearances effective, as did Ralph Nessek, as Sir John Pontefract.

As Mr Kelvil MP, John Normington was basically a butt for political jokes some of which, despite being written over 100 years ago, still seemed apt. Lord Alfred Rutford - for Rutford read Douglas - a thankless role of about two lines was given its best shot by Jasper Jacob.

Adrian Noble's production eschewed the principle that a line can be effective by underplaying it and marshalled his cast so every epigram was given its full effect, usually centre stage and delivered straight to the audience.

This was particularly noticeable as the sets, by Peter McIntosh, were minimal and the action seemed to centre on the cast moving from chair to sofa, to chaise longue as though they were participating in some frenetic game of dramatic musical chairs.

As a theatrical curiosity and an example Wildeana on the hoof I suppose this production might be worth visiting on a wet afternoon, but only if you are prepared to accept that this is a play - and production - of no importance.

A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde, Directed by Adrian Noble, Designed by Peter McKintosh, Lighting by Rick Fisher, Sound by Paul Arditti. WITH: Rupert Graves, Prunella Scales, Samantha Bond, Caroline Blakiston, Rachel Stirling, Ralph Nossek, Julian Ovenden, Joanne Pearce, Elizabeth Garvie, John Normington, Jasper Jacob, Richard Teverson, Peter Cellier, Richard Syms, Sharon Scogings, Janet Hargreaves, Emilie Kate Owen. Produced by Theatre Royal Haymarket Productions and Stanhope Productions at Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London SW1 Tickets 0870 901 3336.

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