Wilde About The Girl

Written by Ian Shuttleworth

Dominic Dromgoole, having left Shakespeare’s Globe some time ago, now unveils his next venture. Classic Spring Theatre Company, he writes in the programme, ‘is here to celebrate the ground- breaking work of proscenium playwrights in the architecture they wrote for.’ So, the West End, then. Handy, that, what with the company being set up with producer and West End theatre owner Nica Burns, and all.

Classic Spring’s first project is a year-long Oscar Wilde season at London’s Vaudeville Theatre, kicking off with his 1893 drama A Woman of No Importance, in which an affair of 20 years ago
is uncovered as a mother resists her son going off to be secretary to his heartless aristocratic father (though neither man knows at first about their blood tie).

This is a presentation that almost overwhelms with a feeling of authenticity – indeed, it’s arguably more authentic than Wilde’s own final version, as it restores some lines that Oscar felt too socially or politically risqué at the time. But whether that air of authenticity is itself, er, authentic is a different matter.

It’s one thing, for instance, for Jonathan Fensom’s sets to be so detailed that a few minutes’ pause is necessary between acts for scene changes; it’s quite another for Anne Reid (who plays Lady Hunstanton with comic brio) to come front-curtain with a quartet of actors and regale us with a series of sentimental music-hall numbers, however impeccably sourced they are from the period.

Paradoxically, the more attention is paid to 1890s fidelity, the more keenly one feels the gap between then and 2017. However much sharper material is reinserted, not even the superlative acting of Eve Best can make Mrs Arbuthnot seem like a woman who risks everything if her past is revealed; her resistance to the blandishments of Lord Illingworth elicits not so much a thrill at her audacious resolution as an inward mutter of ‘You go, girl! A possible salvation is offered by young American visitor Hester Worsley, but her sententious outpourings about a new land founded on noble ideals now clang with bleak irony.

What the production does do, it does gloriously. Eleanor Bron is a natural at delivering Wildean banter, which in all quarters is buffed to a high sheen. Before Illingworth is revealed as a cad, his playful, cynical exchanges with his old friend Mrs Allonby make for some admirable rallies between Dominic Rowan and Emma Fielding. It all adds up to a superior, finely crafted evening of old-fashioned comedy-drama, but contrary to Dromgoole’s apparent desire, it quite fails to make ‘old-fashioned’ seem fresh.

Until 30 December, Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2: 0330-333 4814, www.classicspring.co.uk