BWW Review: AN IDEAL HUSBAND, Vaudeville Theatre
Classic Spring's third Oscar Wilde production gains extra piquancy from Amber Rudd's resignation - dealing, as it does, with political scandal and social hypocrisy. It's another facet for Jonathan Church's well-balanced revival, which proves as handsome, witty and ultimately kindly as its beguiling hero.
That would be Freddie Fox's Lord Goring - and, adding a bonus draw, real-life pa Edward plays his disapproving father. However, Goring, "the idlest man in London", is forced to venture outside his comfort zone of parties, bon mots and self-adoration when his best friend and rising politician Robert Chiltern is blackmailed with a terrible secret from his past.
As the title suggests, marriage also looms large, with Goring's father keen to see his son wed, and Chiltern's predicament complicated by his spouse, Gertrude, who both embodies and sees in her husband the puritanical goodness she preaches.
Nathaniel Parker is excellent as Chiltern, descending from the smug assurance of the privileged "English gentleman" to the wretched panic of an animal caught in a trap. He also passionately challenges Goring's assumptions of his morality, pointing out the lure of wealth and the power it brings in this society; surely the system is as much to blame as the individual.
Unfortunately, Frances Barber's blackmailer, Mrs Cheveley, doesn't quite land. She lacks the necessary pace and precision of speech, and - not helped by costume details like giant scarlet puffed sleeves and a swirling black cloak - at times comes across more like a panto Wicked Witch than a cunning operator with an effective public mask.
As Gertrude, Sally Bretton conveys the icy, uncompromising certainty of the fanatic, and, if she doesn't melt sufficiently in the face of Goring's entreaties to prioritise love and forgive human frailty - a lesson also taught by experience - she at least suggests a light thawing.
This feels like a personal entreaty by Wilde, who was about to have his life destroyed by disproportionate condemnation of a "sin", and Freddie Fox delivers it with real conviction. That's the message that shines through in this production, and it's a humane individual response placed in sharp contrast to a pitiless society and equally posturing media, salivating at the prospect of tearing someone down.
As well as bringing heart and gravity to the scandal story, Freddie Fox is the thoroughly delightful anchor in the giddier subplots - whether posing before the mirror talking buttonholes with conspiratorial butler Phipps (a wonderfully dry Tim Wallers), or caught in a genuinely affectionate push-pull with his father.
Edward Fox's voice alone is a national treasure, and put to glorious use here in a series of one-liners delivered with lethal brilliance. He maintains a long-suffering grumpiness throughout, equally perturbed by draughts and paradoxes.
Faith Omole makes a wonderful West End debut as Mabel, Goring's sparring partner and obvious romantic destination. She's a joyful, sparky presence, and has a sure handle on the performative qualities of Wilde's absurd quips.
There's wonderful support, too, from Susan Hampshire as the chattering Lady Markby (who "talks more and says less" than anyone else), plus the comic double act of Rebecca Charles and Joanna van Kampen, who illustrate the ridiculous contradictions of English high society.
Simon Higlett's gilt set emphasises this materialistic world - both seductive and dangerous - and provides sufficient flexibility for the farcical sections, superbly played here.
A sterling production that balances the spry epigrams ("Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast") with a surprising depth of feeling - and boasts double the Foxy charm.
Picture credit: Marc Brenner