And what Wilde liked was to dole out epigrams, of which A Woman of No Importance has more than its fair share. Lady Hunstanton's (Josephine Tewson) country estate is the original home of Wilde's definition of hunting - "the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable", "nothing succeeds like excess" and many more ditties. Sometimes they come so thick and fast that they obscure the story of the very "woman of no importance" whose life was ruined 20 years before the play opens - and who now threatens to be an obstacle to her son's happiness too. But this is a comedy of manners, not a tragedy, so everyone gets what they deserve ...!
Elijah Mojinsky's production elicits plenty of laughter and Anne Tilby's sumptuous sets and matching costumes deservedly get rounds of applause every time the curtain rises. Her purple billiard room with mirrored ceiling is positively decadent! But if I've come out humming the set, it's perhaps because the actors seem stranded upon it, elegantly draped on elegant furniture to spout their mots justes. The action seems a tad static - perhaps Mojinsky's strategy is that quickness of tongue is all.
The production is strongly cast. Kate O'Mara, comely in magenta, is at once downcast and feisty as Mrs Arbuthnot, the title role, and Oliver Tobias as Lord Illingworth, her aristocratic despoiler, has moved effortlessly from young tearaway to old roué. Deborah Grant is pretty and witty as the amoral mirror to the fallen woman. There's exemplary comic timing from Catherine Kanter's acid aristo, and Clive Walton as her put-upon husband demonstrates that, even in Wilde, actions can speak funnier than words.
Tewson and David Brierly, as the archdeacon, prove to be a great double act. They're aided by Wilde's running jokes, as they discuss the worsening condition of the clergyman's unseen wife, deteriorating stoically offstage into Shakespeare's seventh age of (wo)man "sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything". In a play peopled by types, Cameron Fitch and Sarah Wateridge are "the child of shame" and the idealistic American object of his affections respectively, while Antony Gabriel's pompous MP makes an easy target for poking fun at the aspiring middle classes.
But in the end, it all seems less than three-dimensional. I wouldn't blame Moshinsky or his ensemble for this entirely either. Despite this play's longevity as a "classic", I can't help but think Wilde must share the blame.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at Windsor's Theatre Royal)