A Woman of No Importance

Oscar Wilde
Classic Spring Theatre Company
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
to

This is a strange mixture of a show, almost as if director Dominic Dromgoole is attempting ‘something for everyone’ or ‘one size fits all’. Beginning predictably enough with a group of titled ladies taking tea on the terrace of Hunstanton Chase, a stately home which unfortunately was swaying sightly in the breeze, they discuss the virtues or failings of others in true Oscar Wilde manner. In fact the script is so crammed full of Wilde witticisms it is surprising there is any room for meaningful dialogue. Delivered mostly at high speed, especially by an excitable Lady Hunstanton (Lisa Goddard in terrific form) you hardly have time to digest one before the next one is queuing up. It’s all very entertaining and amusing, especially Isla Blair’s Lady Caroline Pontefract played with exquisite unforced well-timed delivery. She might be concentrating on her embroidery as well as the conversation, but that doesn’t prevent her from keeping a close eye on her husband, mostly to let him know what he is doing wrong. This is a lady who knows her own mind, and that of everyone else too.

There is not much in the way of a plot - more an exploration of relationships and a satire on the hypocrisy of a society which ostracises a woman for having a child out of wedlock yet applauds the man for his many seductions. The Woman of no Importance is Mrs. Arbuthnot whose lover abandoned her to bring up their son alone. Posing as a widow to be accepted by society she is played superbly by Katy Stephens with a calm self assurance which contrasts with the superficiality of the other characters and hints at the steely determination needed to survive.

So far nothing really unexpected but, covering a scene change, the butler, complete with violin, surprises everyone by appearing through the curtains closely followed by Lord Alfred with guitar, maid Alice with piano accordion, Gerald Arbuthnot on trumpet cornet and the Reverend Daubeny in the shape of Roy Hudd, who may be getting on a bit but has lost none of his expertise, perfect delivery, and humour. The quintet treated us to a rendition of ‘Little Polly Perkins’, and there are two more ’Entr’Acte’s to enjoy at each scene change. All beautifully performed, a real delight and very amusing, if a little eccentric.

There is a little gentle silly slapstick with an attempt to balance on the arm of a chair and a falling over a deckchair, and the pace slows down and drags slightly when we get to long drawn out melodrama, so we have a melange of all theatrical styles. We also have Georgia Landers, a young woman with great stage presence, as Miss Hester Worsley, a young American visitor commenting on the artificial social barriers she observes in contrast with those in her home country. She is the love interest for Gerald Arbuthnot who is unaware that Lord Illingworth (a swaggering, confident, overbearing Mark Meadows), the the man offering him a position as his private secretary is actually his father.

This is a play which is not often performed, possibly the large cast is a bit off-putting, but it is very entertaining, was very well received by the large audience, and what better way to spend a cold wintry evening.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor