It is a pleasure to welcome back to the West End stage after an absence of more than 20 years Jennifer Saunders and she certainly lights up Kathy Burke’s production of Oscar Wilde’s wise and witty Lady Windermere’s Fan (Vaudeville Theatre). This is the second play in the year-long celebration of Wilde from Dominic Dromgoole’s new company Classic Spring.
Lady Windermere has only been married for two years and has a six-month-old baby and today is her birthday party. All is perfectly in order – that is until her friend Lord Darlington plants a seed of suspicion. Is her husband having an affair? And will the other women really attend the party?
Although written in 1892, the play still feels quite fresh. However, the threadbare plot does look rather spread thin. As with the previous production, A Woman of No Importance, one aspect stands out with newly-minted clarity; the compassion Wilde brought to the works, in particular, his affinity with women. In a deeply uneven society, in which extramarital sexual encounters make men adventurers and women outcasts, the sympathies of Wilde, the ultimate social rebel, do not lie with others of his gender. The dialogue has an eye for broad comedy and is not arch or mannered. It is also characterised by some of Wilde’s most famous lines, among them the crushing “crying is the refuge of plain women, but the ruin of pretty ones”.
On the debit side, the pace slackens at the times and the last act, although genuinely moving, seems rather protracted. Furthermore, the production walks a thin line between caricature and character and sometimes over-balances.
Designer Paul Wills has created an attractive and stylish fan-themed set, dominated by a huge fan window, and even the safety curtain is covered with them.
Grace Molony, just out of drama school, makes a vulnerable, empathetic Lady Windermere, who suspects the worst and teeters on the brink of eloping with Lord Darlington, while Joshua James brings out the callowness of her earnest husband Lord Windermere, trying to do the right thing rather than being just a suave sophisticate. Comedian Kevin Bishop gives a decent account of Lord Darlington, who has convinced himself he loves Lady Windermere and is trying to convince her of the same while delivering some inelible aphorisms including “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. Samantha Spiro makes a strong impression as Mrs Erlynne, a woman of dubious renown with a shady past and a desire to claw her way back into society, and around whom the big secrets of the play revolve.
But the show belongs to Jennifer Saunders who, although not in a pivotal role as the Duchess of Berwick, steals every scene she is in. Saunders voluminous with feather-topped attire is all mannerisms – rolling her eyes, letting her lines escape through barely opened lips, moving her head as if it were wedged in an invisible neck-brace. It is truly a cherishable comic performance.
I should add that there is also a witty music hall style number (with Saunders) about sexual predators that works a treat!
Lady Windermere’s Fan
Showing at the Vaudeville Theatre until 7 April 2018Last modified: April 6, 2021