The Royal Exchange is celebrating the centenary of Oscar Wilde's death with this new production of A Woman of No Importance. One of Wilde's later works, Womanis also one of his most insightful and biting exposés of the double standards, snobbery and dubious morality of the English upper classes of the period. With the benefit of hindsight, the fact that these things caused Wilde's own demise gives this play an added poignancy.
It's hard to go wrong with Wilde's dialogue - so clever, so witty, and still sounding remarkably fresh. What we have here is a fairly traditional treatment of Wilde, with no surprises. Marianne Elliott's production ticks along nicely, but the play's most dramatic and moving scenes never quite reach their full potential. It's not that the play lacks vitality, just that it fails to mine the full depths of dramatic intensity.
Some of the group scenes lack synergy, too, although the cast members are all individually good. Particularly noteworthy is Jonny Phillips as evil cad Lord Illingworth, who is reminiscent of Gary Oldman in his Dracula manifestation, all smouldering sexuality, menacing, dark looks and swinging coat tails. The sexual tension between him and Mrs Allonby, spunkily played by Diana Hardcastle, is quite the most enthralling thing about the first half.
The second half is all about good overcoming evil, the good being championed by Miss Hester Worsley (Alison McKenna) and Mrs Arbuthnot (Geraldine Alexander). The most God-fearing characters in the play, they bring such an air of morality to the proceedings that it's a relief when Mrs Allonby makes a final appearance to dispense some cynicism and sharp advice.
The lavish costumes and opulent set (particularly the dinner table, a visual feast) have both been created by the hugely talented Lez Brotherston, who is rapidly becoming a Royal Exchange regular. He uses the Exchange's central performance space brilliantly to draw the audience in and make them feel a part of this wonderfully quirky world.
This is a good production of A Woman of No Importance, and I'd recommend it. It's well played, well paced, and it looks fantastic. But ultimately it lacks sparkle.