The Theatreguide.London Review
Vaudeville Theatre January-April 2018
The Vaudeville's yearlong Oscar Wilde season continues with this sure-to-entertain classic.
Like A Woman Of No Importance before it, it is a serious critique of social hypocrisy cleverly disguised as a light comedy. But the two sides are better integrated than in the previous play, with less of a clash when the tone shifts.
Lady Windermere is a bit of a prig for whom all morality is clear – anyone, male or female, about whom there is the hint of scandal must be guilty and must be shunned. When a woman with a past attempts to re-enter society and Lord Windermere supports her, his wife's only conclusion is that he too is unclean.
It takes the shadow of a scandal on herself (in which a misplaced fan plays a role) to make her see that smoke does not always indicate fire.
And all this is, of course, set in a social world filled with Wilde's signature wit and aphorisms. In fact Wilde is more democratic in his distribution of wit here than in some other plays.
There isn't one single clever character dropping his bon mots upon the others, but everyone, including the fools, gets a turn at saying something quotable.
Kathy Burke's production sets exactly the right tone at the light-hearted start and navigates the movements back and forth between comedy and melodrama with barely a hitch.
This in spite of the fact that two of the three nominal stars don't offer very much. Samantha Spiro as the fallen woman and Kevin Bishop as the town's most eligible and tempting bachelor give thoroughly generic performances adding nothing to the competent reading of their lines.
Only Jennifer Saunders, in a cameo guest-star turn as a society lady, brings a real comic sensibility to her performance. Like her director, Saunders is a skilled comedian, and between them they know exactly when to let Wilde's wit do the work for them and when to add just a bit of filigree in the delivery.
(Unfortunately Saunders' character disappears after the first scene, but director Burke invents a way to bring her back onstage later.)
In the central role newcomer Grace Molony proves a real discovery. Lovely to look at, she conveys a youth and innocence that go a long way toward forgiving her puritanism, as we sense from the start that Lady W is more unworldly than inhuman.
Molony carries much of the weight of the play's more serious moments, and does so with grace, making her character's growing-up as pleasurable to watch as the repartee elsewhere is to hear.
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