An Ideal Husband is not noted as one of Oscar Wilde’s finest works but a strong production can offer plenty to enjoy and food for thought.
Over the course of 24 hours a marriage is imperilled, a political scandal unearthed and a small, closely-knit group of upper-crust Victorians is forced to examine issues of loyalty, principle and forgiveness. The agent of this turmoil is the glamorous Mrs Cheveley, visiting London from her Viennese exile in order to blackmail Robert Chiltern (Sunny Moodie), a prominent golden-boy in government who has actually built a glittering career on an appalling moral lapse.
When Robert’s wife Gertrude (Rose Robinson) learns the truth her faith in her ‘ideal husband’ is shattered, rocking her vision of herself as the perfect complement to Robert's paragon of virtue and threatening their marriage and all the social and moral freight attached to it.
As a counterpoint to these darker themes the dandyish Lord Goring, played with delicious world-weariness by Kieran Simms, gives us the ‘Oscar’ role, spouting witty, apposite comments and showing us an alternative model of male-female relations through his banter with Robert’s sister, Mabel (Emily MacDonald).
Goring becomes instrumental to the action when Mrs Cheveley, in a stand-out performance by Sheridan Johnson, revives her old passion for him and it’s hard not to think that these two would make a sexier item than the other couplings. Ironically, in spite of Wilde’s own impending affront to his class when An Ideal Husband was first seen (he was arrested during its run), he prefers to plump for keeping the wheels of society oiled (although a weevil of mistrust is allowed to remain).
Muckle Roe’s production is admirably spare. The staging is lean and elegant, giving the costumes visual priority (accolades to designer Lucy Wilkinson) and the script has been scythed of extraneous characters. Charlie Ward directs with great pace and dexterity but there’s some work left undone: primarily, Robert Chiltern’s dilemma could be sharpened up.
The cast is largely too fresh-faced for the world of the play, but that’s a minor cavil - this fringe show is both entertaining and smart-looking.