An Ideal Husband at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket
Note: An Ideal Husband returned to the Haymarket from 22 August 1998 following runs at the Gielgud and Albery Theatres. The new cast features Susannah York as 'Mrs Cheveley', Christopher Cazenove as 'Lord Goring', Oliver Cotton as 'Sir Robert Chiltern', Geraldine Fitzgerald as 'Lady Chiltern', Richard Todd as 'Earl of Caversham' and Barbara Murray as 'Lady Markby'.
My, didn't Oscar Wilde have fun taking the mickey out of the idle rich - and isn't it still so much fun to watch him do it?
Although An Ideal Husband was first performed more than a hundred years ago, the subject matter retains a thoroughly modern, cash-for-questions type resonance. Sir Robert Chiltern (Simon Ward) is a wealthy, successful politician who likes to bang on about public morality. But one woman, Mrs Cheveley (Kate O Mara), knows the secret root of his success - his long-ago sale of state secrets - and she intends to profit from it. How can Robert simultaneously save his career and his marriage to the archly moral Lady Chiltern (Kim Thomson)? His friend - the most idle man in the world, Lord Goring (Martin Shaw) - comes to the rescue in a sequence of misunderstandings and farce.
Thematically, An Ideal Husband is well-trodden Wilde territory - idleness (there it is again), hypocrisy, morality and the roles of the sexes all rear their head, as they do in The Importance of Being Earnest and other Wilde offerings. But just as we are compelled to devour Tara Palmer-Tomkinson's awful society column in The Sunday Times each week, we happily consume a Wilde play - to confirm in our minds just how ridiculous the upper class really are.
Although enjoyable, there are however some disappointments in this production. Namely, the lead roles don't consistently deliver. Ward's Chiltern teeters a tad too much on the wrong side of priggishness to engender much sympathy and Shaw's Goring takes his bombastic nature to occasional annoying extremes. Shaw's best moments are in the scenes with Goring's father the Earl of Caversham (Michael Denison). In fact, it is the smaller parts that really steal the show. Denison and Dulcie Gray's Lady Markby dish out their dialogue with spot-on crotchedy gruffness and ditzy feist which make their lines the most memorable whether the script warrants it or not.
'Nothing is so difficult to marry off as a large nose,' hoots Gray at one point and the house erupts as it does when Denison lectures Shaw with 'It is your duty to get married. You can't always be living for pleasure.'
This Peter Hall production first opened at the Theatre Royal in January where it had a sell-out season before transferring to Broadway in May. It returned to London and the Theatre Royal in August for eleven weeks before transferring to the Gielgud Theatre for another limited run from 14 October.
Terri Paddock, August 1997