Prior to Lady Windermere's Fan, all of Oscar Wilde's previous plays were failures. Seeing the latest Royal Exchange production, you can see why it was a breakthrough play for the celebrated playwright, as it contains his trademark wit, a familiar theme involving secrets and lies and a great collection of characters including the odd eccentric.
Lady Windermere (Laura Rees) is young, married and rich and very beautiful. Her seemingly perfect life is dealt a vicious blow when notorious gossip - the Duchess of Berwick (Bernice Stegers) informs her that her husband is having an affair with the mysterious yet enigmatic Mrs Erlynne (Lysette Anthony). Not only that, but the Duchess informs the Lady that this vamp is going to show to her 21st Birthday Ball. Comedy, mistaken identity, and soul searching ensues.
The play is billed as having elements of the thriller genre and it does not really suit that description as like many Wilde plays, it is characters that bring the piece to life - with their biting wit and statements about society. And their are plenty of delicious lines here to savour. "It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious", says Lord Darlington. Thankfully, this production is never boring and has a charm of its own.
Greg Hersov brings out the best in a cast which has some real scene stealers. Rees as the title character has the least interesting part - as the Lady is at the centre of the plot - but it's what going around her that fascinates the audience. Anthony is perfect as the lady in red with a secret and relishes the dynamic dialogue. Stegers is excellent as the gossip who creates waves within the Windermere household.
Milo Twomey is reliably good as the wronged husband but it is Oliver Gomm who truly embraces the material and runs with it. Like an Olympian he passes the baton onto Cameron Stewart as Lord Augustus Lorton who again, does real justice to Wilde's wonderful writing. Timothy Knightley and Eliza Collings create comic impact and make an attractive and couple in what amounts to cameo roles. Lastly, Samuel Collings has magnetic stage presence and does far more with the role Lord Darlington than is on the page.
At times, the play sits between several genres and therefore the mood of the piece changes too much for comfort. But the cast keep the play firmly on track, aided by Hersov's confident direction. The Royal Exchange Costume Department outdo themselves and convey real splendour. Ashley Martin-Davis' set design is disappointingly sparse though.
The Royal Exchange always manage to make you Wilde about Oscar and they have done it again, as this production has beauty, biting humour and best of all - brilliant performances.