Writer: Oscar Wilde
Director: David Phipps-Davis
Reviewer: Jon Wainwright
Secrets from the past and high principles in the present are the combustible ingredients of this classic play by Oscar Wilde. The naked light at large in London society is Laura Cheveley, who knows just how Sir Robert Chiltern acquired his fortune and is determined to use this information to her advantage. All that stands in her way is her own past, and her bad luck in crossing paths once again with Arthur Goring, whose knowledge of brooches and bracelets proves decisive in her downfall. Scattered throughout this enjoyable production is the aphoristic wit and trademark Wildean one-liners we have come to expect from this playwright, but there is also a moral substance at the heart of the play, and a moving final scene. Mabel Chiltern finally gets her man, and the last thing she wants is an ideal husband.
Given the lavishness of the characters’ lifestyles (their houses in Mayfair have morning-rooms and libraries, and servants), any production is bound to rely on the audience’s imagination and willingness to enter a world of wealth and privilege (at one point, the Earl of Caversham comes back from a friendly chat with the prime minister in Downing Street). A modest budget is used to great effect, notably by costume designer, Jessica Miles. The opening scene is the party at Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern’s house in Grosvenor Square. The women wear elegant dresses and the men are in black tie. The wow factor is reserved for the entrance of Laura Cheveley, played with seductive glamour by Jill Rutland. According to Arthur Goring the next morning, Laura is wearing “too much makeup and not quite enough clothes.” Her LBD is, indeed, little, and the “B” could stand for “bustier” (French pronunciation) as well as “black”, creating as it does a striking strapless silhouette.
She is a character who knows exactly how to make an impression, and she doesn’t care that it won’t always be a favourable one. Gertrude Chiltern remembers her as a naughty schoolgirl, and views the grown-up Laura with an unchanged disdain. In so doing she underestimates Laura’s mature intelligence, and also this woman’s power over her own husband, who is, in her eyes, the ideal husband. Both Gertrude and Robert Chiltern will each have to find a way of moving beyond this impossible standard.
Robert Chiltern is played by Doug Cooper, who bears an uncanny resemblance to John Bercow, the current Speaker of the House of Commons. Chiltern, for all his faults, is an effective parliamentarian, and his career in politics – as well as his marriage – is at stake should Laura’s secret become public. His rescue arrives in the unlikely form of his good friend, Arthur Goring, who spends more time filing his nails than reading about current affairs. Goring is always immaculately turned out, and the Wilde character who concludes, after looking at himself in the mirror, that “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”
There’s little evidence for the director’s claim to have set the production in the modern day. While the dresses are more daring than might have been possible even in fin-de-siècle London, there isn’t a mobile phone in sight (among characters with a crammed social diary), and when Goring asks his servant if there are any messages, he’s handed a pile of letters on a silver tray. This matters little, since David Phipps-Davis does succeed in avoiding “a dusty period piece” and in making room in this small theatre for Oscar Wilde’s brilliance to shine.
Photo: Andreas Grieger | Runs until 19th July