Poser's Delight

By Georgina Brown

That public figures cannot expect that the sins of the past will remain buried forever is one of many timeless truths to emerge in oscar Wilde’s sparkler, an ideal husband. In the play, Sir Robert Chiltern’s career and wealth as a politician is founded on the sale of a Cabinet secret to a financier. These days we call it insider dealing. And Nathaniel Parker’s decent if dullish Chiltern appears to have got away with it and done very nicely thank you, until the scheming Mrs Cheveley (Frances Barber) slithers on to the social scene and threatens to expose the guilt beneath his gorgeously gilded drawing room and his glittering position.

Barber’s snake-like Mrs Cheveley, lusciously spilling out of her emerald-shot- with-heliotrope décolleté silk sheath, darts venom through glistening lips. She gleefully boasts that she didn’t win the good conduct prize when she was at school with Sir Robert's saintly spouse, Gertrude (Sally Bretton in a flat and thankless role). her prizes, she hisses, came later. 

She shines. But Freddie Fox is the brightest star in Jonathan Church’s assured and lustrous production, as the deceptively effete dandy lord Goring, son of Lord Caversham, played to aristocratic and antique perfection by his real-life father, Edward. Fox junior is a wonderfully winning Wilde card, pretending to think of little but his buttonhole, actually valuing honour and loyalty even more highly than his own appearance. At one point, he simply canters around the
room, for the fun of it. and for several delicious moments he admires himself in an imagined mirror, madly preening and posturing, before announcing with some seriousness: ‘to love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.’ And carries it off beautifully.

Indeed, the play shines with irresistible epigrams and aphorisms. one of its characters, Lady Markby (a treasurable turn from Susan Hampshire), seems to exist only as a human Catherine wheel, to give some of the one-liners an extra  whirl, as in, ‘too much rouge and not enough clothes, always a sign of despair in a woman,’ or ‘there’s nothing so difficult to marry as a large nose.’

But one of the satisfactions of this piece is the balance between its near-ibsenite seriousness and the Feydeauesque farcicality. For beneath the triviality lies an important truth and beneath the wit real wisdom: that forgiveness and an acceptance of fallibility are vital ingredients in a successful marriage. it didn’t work for poor Oscar, but it makes it a date-proof play for today.

Until 14 July at Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2R (0330-333 4814); from 18 July to 4 August, Theatre Royal Bath (01225-448844)