An Ideal Husband
Lindsay Posner has tended to work with brash, contemporary American playwrights of late. Even so, he has little trouble in crossing over to a work by this suavest of Brits.
The director has benefitted from a starry cast and design crew with strength in depth, who together ensure that Wilde's morality tale is a pleasure to behold..
To set the scene for An Ideal Husband, the setting and costumes from Stephen Brimson Lewis are a delight. The former comes in a symbolic tarnished gold, while the frocks and, in one case, a gorgeous plum-coloured suit are a reminder of the unbounded opulence enjoyed by the wealthy classes as the Victorian era came to a close.
Alexander Hanson, better known as a musical star, plays Sir Robert Chilton, a young junior minister heading unerringly for the upper echelons of government. Rachel Stirling is his beautiful, saintly wife Gertrude, a lady in the true sense, who idolises and idealises him.
As Sir Robert is on the brink of greater things following his anticipated denunciation of a financial scam, along comes the proudly immoral Mrs Cheveley, a Viennese exile with a reputation but unlimited wealth. She has a proposal that amounts to blackmail but sets up the three-hour drama perfectly by introducing its central dilemma.
The wicked lady, played by Hanson's real life wife, Miss Moneypenny Samantha Bond, holds a power over the politician because 18 years before he had entered an almost Faustian pact with a human devil the proceeds of which set him up in life.
The pivotal figure in the drama is Sir Robert's best friend, the idle, Wildean Lord Goring. He is played by adaptable Elliot Cowan in a role that could hardly be further from his gory portrayal of Macbeth at the Globe in the spring.
This precious, conceited waster with more money than sense is an old flame of the Machiavellian Mrs Cheveley and playing her at her own game, eventually brings about an inevitably happy ending to a play that otherwise has all the ingredients of a tragedy.
There is much to enjoy from such a good cast. The generally winning Cowan can be overly melodramatic at times and loves to engage mischievously with the audience, but the ladies will be charmed. His wit shines through so that Lord Goring fully deserves the hand of Fiona Button's Miss Mabel. She, like Caroline Blakiston as elderly Lady Markby, gets a superb monologue which will enthuse any audience. Another experienced actor, Charles Kay playing Coring's dotty father, also has a field day.
It is the leading ladies who might get the greatest plaudits, Rachel Stirling excelling when suffering as required almost constantly, while Samantha Bond has great fun in one of those roles that no actress can resist.
Oscar Wilde remains popular for two reasons. First, his characters and situations always fascinate, even when the plotting is necessarily contrived. He also wrote the wittiest lines until Noël Coward came along, packing his plays with aphorisms that have the impact of depth charges.
It helps that his political observations and machinations feel so absolutely up to date, since today's parliamentarians are as unscrupulous and self-serving as anything that he could create, even satirically.
Combining all of this, Posner and his team should be on to a winner in An Ideal Husband, and deservedly so.
Playing until 19 February
Reviewer: Philip Fisher