If Kathy Burke’s production for the Vaudeville’s Oscar Wilde Season errs a little on the comic side, it does not entirely neglect the serious import simmering below the surface. But the casting of Jennifer Saunders guarantees that there will be more laughs than usual. And thus it proves.
Her first appearance as the Duchess of Berwick in towering feathery headgear and a voluminous dress triggers laughter before she has opened her mouth.
Like a supercharged Lady Bracknell she orders her mousy daughter Lady Agatha (Ami Metcalf) around before gleefully delivering the news to her host Lady Windermere (Grace Molony) that her husband has been having a scandalous liaison with a certain Mrs Erlynne (Samantha Spiro). Having been happily married for two years and with a small child, Lady Windermere is devastated and seeks an explanation from Lord Windermere (Joshua James) who denies any impropriety while admitting that he has been seeing the woman in secret.
However innocent he may be, it is clear he is not telling her the whole truth. When she eventually appears Mrs Erlynne is wreathed in the scent of blackmail.
Burke’s light-as-air production dazzles the ear as much as the eye.
The youthful cast delivers Wilde’s sparkling dialogue with speed and clarity and no sooner have you stopped laughing at one line than you are giggling at the next.
Paul Wills’ design is bright and uncluttered. The symbolic fan of the title was Lady Windermere’s birthday gift from her husband and it is as potent a plot catalyst as Desdemona’s handkerchief: here the glorious front cloth rises to reveal the fan repeated in the huge fan-shaped window that dominates the set.
The casting is unusual but inspired. Saunders’ bottled snob is a joy and she is surrounded by a roster of excellent performances from Molony’s sparky but vulnerable Lady Windermere to Joseph Marcell’s wife-hunting hedonist Lord Lorton. And Wilde’s aphorisms fly across the stage like mirth-seeking missiles, particularly in the third act.
But the laughter stalls, as it should do, towards the denouement when reality sets in and blinkered idealism gives way to companionable compromise and love based on trust more than romantic fantasy.
As the ambiguous Mrs Erlynne concludes: “Ideals are dangerous things. Realities are better. They wound but they’re better.”
Burke may inflict wounds more lightly than Wilde intended but they sting nonetheless.
Vaudeville Theatre, London, until April 7. Tickets: 0330 333 4814