No other regional theatre does Oscar Wilde with as much pace, precision and passion as the Royal Exchange. Braham Murray's 2004 production of The Importance of Being Earnest was a true delight. Now, this Christmas, Murray’s take on An Ideal Husband lives up to its title, providing the ideal alternative to pantomime fare on the festive theatre menu.
Wilde's classic was written in 1895 but because the narrative centres on the themes of sexual and political corruption, it has many parallels for a modern audience to appreciate. Add to this resonance Wilde’s trademark fizzing dialogue and you could simply recreate the best bits and bingo; you’d have a hit.
Murray isn’t content to do Wilde by numbers though. He really does do the work justice by assembling a dazzling array of talent both on stage and behind on the scenes. From the sterling supporting cast - including the wonderful Ann Firbank as the bored Socialite Lady Markby to the underplaying of Stephen Hudson as the ears and the eyes of the house, Phipps - each performer makes this production tremendous fun.
The arrival of scarlet woman Mrs Cheveley (played with a wicked and malevolent wit by the excellent Joanna Riding) tears a rock solid couple's lives in two. Cue political scandal, rumours of infidelity and a marriage in crisis. Simon Robson and Rae Hendrie play the pawns, Robert and Lady Chiltern, with a real sympathetic edge.
Robert's friend, the dandy fop Lord Goring, in a great performance by Milo Twomey, comes to their aid. Twomey invests this character with both warmth and self-importance, rendering fully two-dimensional a part that could easily be overplayed for laughs, minus the pathos.
Simon Higlett’s set is minimalist but highly effective, focusing on the opulent wealth of the world these characters inhabit, yet evoking their sense of emptiness remarkably well also. Murray injects pace and heart into the play, enabling you to empathise with Lady Chiltern and her hapless husband as they are drawn into Cheveley’s manipulative games. But with Riding relishing her chance to play the villainess, you do smile as she wounds the couple with her venomous vocabulary.
Aside from the odd shaky moment at the start, this is the Royal Exchange’s best play of the year. The costumes are breathtaking and the acting divine. Like Cheveley herself, you will enjoy yourself immensely.