Lord Arthur Savile's Crime

A new adaptation by Trevor Baxter of the story by Oscar Wilde
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring

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What an eclectic version of Wilde's short story this is! There's the story itself, of course, plus quite a number of very funny Wildean epigrams that I don't remember from the original, and then we have The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and they are all wrapped up in a melodrama (in the proper sense of the word as well as the more common modern use), with on-stage music and a Victorian theatre, complete with proscenium arch, house tabs and a variety of scenic cloths.

Let's start with the melodrama. This production has all the hallmarks we expect: language which, if not exactly elevated, is at least not the language of every day; some "philosophical" contemplation; the occasional tableau when feelings are high; music which underscores the emotions and points up significant moments (the original "melos" of the term), and, of course, the happy ending.

But author Baxter's approach is also very knowing. He and director Christopher Luscombe know that modern audiences cannot see melodrama as our Victorian ancestors did, so they treat the genre with a gentle mockery, making us all (including the cast) complicit in a kind of "let's pretend and have a bit of a laugh", not exactly at the genre's expense but almost in the indulgent way we might treat a child - a kind of gentle subversion.

They achieve this in numerous ways: at stage right we have an easel carrying cards which not only indicate the scenes and acts but also sum up the scene being played in a brief but amusing caption; early in the first act Russ Abbot, playing the palm-reader Septimus Podgers, launches into a tear-jerking speech about the horrors which would be visited upon his family if Lord Arthur were to reveal the secret of many of his "predictions", and virtually conducts the on-stage musicians as he does so, and the music itself is made up of melodramatic clichés.

The performances maintain a sense of melodrama, without descending into parody: the exaggerated gestures are there in the tableaux but not in the speech and movement. There is, of course, a Victorian stiffness and formality, even in the scenes between Lord Arthur and fiancée Sybil, but Wilde's wit sparkles throughout, normally in the mouth of Lady Windermere, in some of whose comments we detect more than a hint of Lady Bracknell.

It's an enjoyable evening's entertainment, with a strong cast who perform with commitment and panache. John Sackville makes Lord Arthur's belief in Podgers' prediction that he will commit a murder very believeable and his increasing desperation as each attempt to kill a relative (just in case it is Sybil who he will murder at some future date) fails is played with great restraint. Sara Crowe establishes Sybil as more than a wide-eyed ingenue: as the wedding is put off time after time, she becomes much more Gwendolen Fairfax than Cecily Cardew. Susan Penhaligon delivers most of the bons mots - and she gets most of them - with a deceptive casualness which points them up all the more, whilst Russ Abbot slightly underplays Podgers to great effect. Royce Mills' Dean of Chichester is a wonderful comic creation and he plays him with impeccable timing. Barry Howard gave us a rather camp German anarchist and Gay Lambert managed to make Lady Clemetina both dotty and perceptive. Pianist Tom Jude made a brief appearance as a policeman whose change from hectoring to servilty when he discovered that he was talking to a Lord was nicely judged. The other musician is violinist Elisa Boyd, who bears most of the burden of the music, and Richard Gee, in his first professional year, makes a becomingly suave footman.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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