BWW Review: A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE, Richmond Theatre
After the broad success of his year-long Oscar Wilde Season, Classic Spring's Dominic Dromgoole has brought the first play in that series, A Woman Of No Importance, on a national tour that kicks off Richmond Theatre's new season this week.
Written in 1893, the play is a stark exposition of the double standards of Victorian society, were women can be destroyed by their conduct, but men can do as they please. A woman known as Mrs Arbuthnot has spent twenty years hiding from her son that he was fathered illegitimately by the rakish Lord Illingworth. Now Illingworth unknowingly wants to employ the young man and Mrs Arbuthnot must face the dilemma of silence or confronting Illingworth and exposing her son to the truth and herself to social ruin.
It is a strange choice of the revived plays to tour; with a cast of 14, it poses staging problems, with the characters sometimes crowded into the set. It is also not Wilde's best-known, or indeed best, play. The essential problem with the play is that the story could easily be covered in half an hour and yet it drags on for nearly two.
The first half is set in the country house of Lady Hunstanton, where a group of people (who are they all?) swap witty quips and observations that begin as entertaining; jokes about the standing of politicians and the House of Commons could not be more prescient. However, this relentless verbal tennis becomes increasingly wearing and little else happens. Then we are introduced to Mrs Arbuthnot and the true drama begins.
Liza Goddard makes a charmingly funny hostess as Lady Hunstanton and bounces off the sharp observations from Lady Caroline Pontefract, played with aplomb by Isla Blair. Emma Amos is a flirtacious and quick-witted Mrs Allonby.
Mark Meadows is the suitably caddish Lord Illingworth. There is nice chemistry between him and Amos, but he could be slightly more rakish and fails to exploit some of the show's best lines as much as he could.
Katy Stephens plays Mrs Arbuthnot. She is not a woman brimming with quick-witted responses, but there is a core of strength that is well-played. This is undermined somewhat when she is faced with the option of marrying Illingworth; then she appears to lament her independence more than celebrate it and has a rather melodramatic reaction to her argument with him over their son. Her vocal projection is excellent, but often sounds much louder than her fellow cast members.
The production looks beautiful. Jonathan Fensom's design is detailed and sumptuous, with the drawing room at Hunstanton Chase looking particularly opulent, with an impressive fireplace and luxurious fabrics. The depth of the sets gives a lovely visual eyeline, but presents a few projection problems to the cast if they stand towards the back of the set.
The necessity to change between these elaborate sets also presents a problem with the decision to present entr'acte songs, performed by the affable and very professional Roy Hudd. The intension is innocent and light-hearted entertainment, but it falls flat and feels very much like filling time, despite the ability of the musicians. Those who saw the adaptation of Lady Windermere's Fan from the same series, will note the huge difference between these songs and the highly entertaining performance by Jennifer Saunders between acts.
This is only the second week of the tour and many of the cast stumble over a few of their words. There is potential, but the production needs more heart to succeed. In essence, the issue is the play itself more than anything else.
Photo Credit: Robert Day