The Theatreguide.London Review
A Woman of No Importance
Haymarket Theatre Autumn-Winter 2003
Oscar Wilde's 1893 comedy, his first, is actually a remarkably subversive work that spends half its length celebrating a culture and morality and then completely undercuts it in a shocking reversal.
And if the current revival directed by Adrian Noble doesn't always have the snap and bite it should, in either half, it is still a strong evening and a revelation for those who think of Wildean comedy as empty fluff.
The play opens in archetypal Wildean country, a house party among the titled idle class. The hostess, played by Prunella Scales, is just dim or wise enough to keep conversations from straying too far from the safely trivial, and her guests include the acerbically witty older woman (Caroline Blakiston), her not-as-henpecked-as-she-would-wish husband (Ralph Nossek), and a pair of social stars through their mastery of amoral wit, played by Joanne Pearce and Rupert Graves.
The only out-of-step character is a virginal young American played by Rachel Stirling, whose expressions of confusion and distaste at the triviality and wickedness of this society make her the subject of ridicule.
No, following the conventions of manners comedy since the Restoration, it is Rupert Graves' character who represents all the best that this world has to offer, admired by all, including the young man (Julian Ovenden) he invites to be his protégé.
And then, after a bit of foreshadowing, we meet the woman he seduced and abandoned twenty years ago, and the play is turned on its head.
I won't go into details except to say that she is the young man's mother, and that your appreciation of the second half of the play depends on your capacity for Victorian melodrama and a morality that, while questioning the fairness of a man's getting off scot-free, never doubts that a fallen woman is a thing of shame.
If you can get past those barriers, the second half is powerful melodrama, driven by Samantha Bond's fiery performance as the mother, and it completely overthrows the morality of the first half, exposing Graves' character for the despicable cad he is and changing our opinions of everyone else who shared or tacitly accepted his amorality.
Rupert Graves is appropriately attractive and charming, though a slightly goofy grin makes him seem considerably younger than the character must be, and his moral exposure is effectively shocking.
As the two young people torn between the play's conflicting moralities, Rachel Stirling and Julian Ovenden tread their way successfully through the sudden change in tone and the soap opera excesses of the second half.
The others in the cast serve the first half of the play well, by establishing the light comic tone with no hint that it will be demolished later.
But it is Samantha Bond who makes the play work, If we didn't believe in her character, the Victorian morality and dramaturgy would sink it.
But she bravely immerses herself in role, morality and play conventions, and triumphs over the problems of Victorian melodrama in the only way possible - by playing it with absolute conviction.
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